On Labor Day we honor work and workers. But what happens when the job market is in such turmoil that the very idea of stable, sustaining employment begins to evaporate before our eyes? What happens when the degradation of the contemporary workplace makes a mockery of the idea of "honoring" work? What happens when we Americans can no longer measure our value -- or even feel very human -- based on our paid work? Where is our self-worth to be centered and nurtured in this unsettling new world?
Wonkish ones like me often think of the employment challenge in aggregated terms: we read the business press or tune to NPR's "Marketplace" to hear blips of this and that: new jobless claims, new figures on the "99-ers": the long-term jobless who've already burned through 99 weeks of unemployment compensation, new data on older workers delaying retirement or coming out of retirement. It's reported in the same dispassionate way as new numbers on consumer confidence, manufacturers' inventories, etc. Politicians may try to put a bit more heart into it, but it still mainly comes out as blah blah blah.
Of course it's not blah blah blah at all for the human beings who are struggling. Really struggling, when there are six workers in line for every available opening and when none of the old rules seems to apply.
Those old rules were:
1. Get yourself good training or a good education as your ticket to a good job;
2. Show your loyalty and receive ever-increasing responsibility and compensation;
3. Expect to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle and self-respect by applying yourself;
4. Expect to retire before age 70 in a degree of comfort and security.
These rules, of course, bear little relation to the realities of the contemporary workplace and job market. I meet college-age youngsters all the time who either can't get the training or the college classes they need to get (oversubscribed classes, rising fees, etc.) or who find that having the credential makes no real difference: they end up in junk jobs anyway.
As for loyalty and dedication: there may be some employers who still recognize and reward these traits, but the majority of companies are run by bean counters who couldn't care less -- and who do not hesitate to cut the compensation and benefits of long-term workers for the company's short-term benefit.
And expecting to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle? We are rapidly hurtling into a new social space without that stable middle: a future with well-compensated elites at the top and a seriously undercompensated majority of drones at the bottom, slinging our food and drinks and changing our sheets in the hospitality and health care industries, temping in call centers, or trying to piece together a living from multiple short-hour jobs in retail.
The almost-retired and wannabe-retired are in the weirdest and must frustrating bind of all: they are told they should keep working in order to have enough in their golden years, yet employers take full advantage of the super-tight job market to discriminate against and exploit them when they do seek to keep working.
I want to stay focused on the specific hurts experienced by people who have internalized the rules, which all come down to one rule: in America you are on your own -- it's you against the world -- so if you fail it means you are defective in some way.
How many religious leaders (pastors, priests, rabbis, imams) have discovered people within their faith communities who are just keeping up appearances: getting up, getting dressed and going out to hunt for a job (or even fake going to a job they no longer have) as though it is still a "normal" world out there?
How many have talked to young people who are consumed by anxiety over the winner-take-all challenge they see in front them--or distressed by the amount they are borrowing for an education that may still not give them any real earning power? How many counsel women workers who know perfectly well that they are paid less and getting fewer promotions than males doing comparable jobs--but who suck it up every day because "that's just the way it is"? How many hear the anguish of workers in their 50s and 60s who can't cope with the demands of the brave new workplace or with the outright viciousness of the brave new personnel managers?
I won't even mention the absolute social and psychological catastrophe created by record-high unemployment and underemployment within communities of color -- a catastrophe eloquently evoked by Bob Herbert and too few others. Pastors serving these communities have to dig really deep for faith resources strong enough to sustain their people's hope and courage.
Religious leaders cannot avoid taking their pastoral responsibility seriously during a terrifying time like this. I want to suggest that this responsibility includes not just one-on-one counseling but also the creation of a different kind of worker support group than the conventional type that concerns itself with buffing up resumes and "trying to keep a positive outlook."
Serious religious leaders can and should sponsor open-ended conversations in safe-space environments: environments in which people can speak freely about their fears and frustrations -- and their anger about an economy and an economic discourse that shuts them out, that treats their shattered lives as collateral damage as the prerogatives of investors increasingly trump the needs of workers. Serious religious leaders should actually counsel their parishioners against adopting the "think positive" mentality that shuts out pain and hurt and that perpetuates the idea that if you aren't doing well in America, there must be something wrong with you. (These days I advise my clergy colleagues to read Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright Sided in order to understand Satan's wiles in greater depth.)
Many congregational leaders are wary of wading into politics by raising questions about a jobless "recovery" or about the scandal of our top corporations sitting on over $2 trillion in cash while refusing to hire new people and continuing to slash the pay and benefits of existing staff.
The best thing these faith leaders can do now is not the least bit "political," but it is revolutionary: They can tell their traumatized community members this essential truth: Your value as a child of God is infinitely more important than your employability "value" in a badly degraded labor market -- and yes, if you are angry about what that market is dishing out, you have every right to be angry. Because this situation really stinks -- and you don't.