It is no longer a secret: full employment as was possible during the days of the ‚economic miracle‘ is an illusion in our time. More and more people are affected by unemployment – in many cases despite good or excellent qualifications. A departure from the old paradigm is sorely needed.
Due to the massive technological progress in recent decades, more and more traditional labor-intensive jobs have been partially or completely rationalized.
A small example: A modern harvester can now generate the revenue which still required the work force of about 1.500 people at the beginning of the twentieth century. Modern IT systems in the office each replace an estimated 60 classic accountants of the same period. What should be a boon to mankind, actually relieving us from unsatisfying, monotonous and possibly harmful work and opening time for personal development and the improvement of life quality, has deepened our bondage instead: Rather than shortening the working hours of all employees by the amount saved, the number of workers is reduced and even more workload heaped upon the remaining ones. Here the principles of business management and national economics collide. For companies, every strategic dismissal produces an improvement in the balance sheet. In simplified terms the profit can thus be increased, yet the cost is being carried by the general public, who must now provide for the “redundant” worker.
Yet another effect inevitably results from this race against reduction:
The number of jobs on offer diverges wildly from the number of candidates. The selection criteria are consequently toughened increasingly, and the pressure – if you were lucky enough to snatch one of the coveted jobs – to give it one hundred percent and more at all times, drives ever more employees into depression from exhaustion – better known under the slogan ‘burnout’. The cost of care for the burned out and exhausted jobholders, of course, are yet again not taken over by the companies that have benefited from their performance – it is once more us, the general public, who is left to pay the bill, while all the company has to do is pick the next in line from a virtually inexhaustible pool of hopeful applicants. This sickening downward spiral already has social consequences, some of which quite dramatic.
In Austria, the cost for the care of burnout sufferers amounts to around seven billion Euros per year, according to WIFO. Other studies show that 30 to 40 percent of employees have already detached from their jobs internally. 43 percent of employees aged from 35 to 55 years would immediately go into retirement if they could. Diseases that are caused by mental stress, were the third leading cause of sick leave in 2013.
We can no longer accept that workers must live with the constant existential threat of immediate substitutability – a condition damaging to the psyche and overall health of the individual, but also to the atmosphere in the workplace in general. We allow for our joy of life to be taken away, for any feeling of security to be sacrificed on the altar of sacrosanct competitiveness and – on the same spurious grounds (competitiveness) – for actual wages having declined so strongly that many of us inexorably drift off into poverty despite full-time employment. What causes it?
“Since the 90s, productivity in Austria has risen by about 37% (Source Arbeiterkammer Burgenland – 2014)
In some cases real wages even declined in Austria since the 90s (Source – OECD Statistics 2015)
This enormous discrepancy between productivity growth and stagnant or declining wages is socially explosive. Here, the question of fairness of the system as a whole is unavoidable. A view of the distribution of wealth in Austria (as in almost all countries of the “western world”) can shed some light onto the topic.
5% of the population own 45% of total assets
While the bottom 50% of people do not even have 4% at their disposal.
(Source: Oesterreichische Nationalbank: Facts about wealth distribution in Austria .2012, p 261.)
In the last 25 years a gigantic upward redistribution of wealth has taken place.
This concentration of capital in the hands of few was and is a threat to democracy, our peace and achievements of civilization in general.
We do not enjoy the fruit of our progress to the extent due to us, we are merely running on the spot or even moving backwards. The assumption that the loss of jobs, or rather the decline in demand for working hours must necessarily lead to depletion, is however a perfect fallacy. This relationship exists only as long as we accept what has been hammered into us for centuries … that we only have a right to live if we put our energy in the service of this aloof machinery. Whoever is not needed, well tough luck for you. This is madness. The gains from rationalization, meaning layoffs, must be shared. But would it be fair to reach into successful entrepreneurs’ pockets to provide for everybody?
Stigmatization of the losers of the predatory competition
“Neoliberalism, by means of complex instruments of indoctrination, is poisoning people’s thoughts and playing them off against each other. It brings the weak to attack the even weaker and causes entire societies to view the poor, weak and sick as “parasites”, “roman-style decadent”, “envious”, “lazy”or more along the same lines, actually despising them.. The dignity of the unusable is constantly threatened. Not exclusively by, but also including the Left who feel compelled to speak of “socially weak” in the fight against poverty, thereby supposedly representing their interests. ”
Magda von Garrel, political theorist and special education teacher
Second class people
Bad enough how the labor market presents itself – even more inhuman, however, is the macchination that has to be endured by about ten percent of working age persons at any given time these days, because they had the misfortune of losing their jobs. Floating over it all, there seems to be the unspoken credo that first and foremost we must protect the public from the wily and tricky laziness of those affected, for whom life is therefore made as uncomfortable as possible in many ways to make sure that the state of unemployment does not appear as desirable under any circumstances. That way, anyone will think twice about daring to end an exploitative, sickening employment. This tactic is particularly cynical when it comes to burnout victims who, coming fresh from a collapse, are faced with a life already in shambles and lack the capacity to deal with this kind of malicious stress.
The harassments are manifold: In ever new ways, it comes to payment delays or accidental discontinuation of payments and insurance – mostly due to subpoenas not received (which are mysterious piling up, since the AMS is no longer obliged to deliver notifications via certified mail) or unexplained misunderstandings concerning the end of sick leaves between AMS and health insurance. People who live by subsistence and have no reserves, are hurdled into serious trouble by such “carelessness” on part of the AMS, for if they can not transfer their fixed costs at the beginning of the month, default charges and miscellaneous fees will be added. Whoever is an inconvenience, may at any time be plunged into disaster – and this mere possibility is deeply frightening. Whether these incidents occur maliciously or accidentally – they are simply too commonplace to be excusable. A good source for getting an impression of what transpires, are sites like http://www.soned.at as well as the experiences of any given unemployed person, who ever attended a class surrounded by other fellow persons affected, only to find that the problems and delays described happen on a regular base. The entire attitude with which the system meets unemployed, is reckless and deeply inhumane, notwithstanding the sincere commitment often present in individual AMS employees.
The fact is, there are people whom the labor market neither wants nor needs. “Teamwork skills” and “stress resistance” are not given to everyone – anyone who is, for example, a rather introverted personality type, will quickly get overwhelmed when constantly forced into social situations, rather than being allowed to simply engage in their task untroubledly. People who suffer from chronic health problems, or need sick leave more than one or two times a year for whatever reason, will eventually be replaced, no matter how well they may do their job. Anyone who is unable to cope with constant stress or a harsh working environment – yet might thrive under the more manageable and less hectic working conditions our parents and grandparents knew – is now left in the basket and finds him/herself confronted with the cliché of the lazy, antisocial and unwilling holdout, someone trying to make a beautiful life for themselves on others’ expense. For how many of those registered as unemployed, might this blanket condemnation be true? Is it permissible to stigmatize, marginalize and victimize all those who simply can not keep up, in the hopes of punishing a few, who perhaps really could, but won’t? And more importantly – at least viewed from the economic point of view – is the expensive bureaucracy truly pulling its weight? The endless frustration and humiliation, adding low self-esteem and depression to the many problems of unemployment persons – resulting in a poor general state of health which subsequently means yet more expenses at the cost of the public – is any of it really helping anyone?
Training – no light at the end of the tunnel
Anyone entering this vortex is unlikely to find their way out again by now. A gap in your resume, a training center of ill repute – and every application will literally end up in the garbage bin of “human resources” departments. Those concerned are painfully aware of this, which is why some finally resign for good. How much futility and humiliation can a human psyche continuously withstand?
What good are the many limitations that make it an almost impossible task to try to give at least a little bit of meaning or purpose to a period of unemployment ? Surely, in a time when most of us will live to be more than 70 or 80 years old (and quite a few even longer), it would make sense, to render adult education easily accessible across the board? Why should unemployed persons only be allowed to serve internships in the context of a training financed by the AMS , but not of their own accord as an entry into a new industry? Why are they not allowed to attend classes to finish school and why can’t they round out course fees when a class they deem helpful for their advancement is refused, as the AMS budget only allows for cheaper measures?
At present, anyone lacking a job is condemned to a crippling standstill rather than being able to utilize the phase to invest in one’s own skills and interests.
Even and especially in the area of physical and mental health, supportive measures would be of great societal benefit. A period of unemployment could be used to get in shape physically and mentally – which in turn increases the chance of employment and lowers the cost of health insurance in coming years. However, most persons affected rather diminish, since – forced to extreme frugality – they do not have the resources to invest in things like a truly healthy diet and overall physical health. The sad record of social market-openings in recent years speaks volumes – people in precarious situations, can no longer afford the daily food. Never mind organic quality, fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality oils, and the likes. Likewise, the emotional stress needs to be better averted in order to prevent depression and a decline into loneliness and hopelessness.
Initiative and social commitment
There are too few social workers, no massage therapists affordable for everyone, not enough dietitians, therapists … unfortunately all these educations do not reliably lead to classic wage employment and are therefore approved only in exceptional cases or not all by the AMS.
And yet, would it not make a lot of sense, (rather than to keep people on unemployment benefits for years since the labor market is quite saturated), to train and deploy people with the will and aptitude for a helping profession? This is no longer simply a question of squeezing everybody into some kind of employment – which would at least for some occupations and temporarily be possible via part-time solutions. In the long run, however, we have to accept that these jobs continue to disappear and a rethinking is inevitable. The question we must ask ourselves can’t be “how do we get a few hundred or thousand people out of the unemployment statistics”, but rather “how do we make the best use of everybody’s potential”. A fairer division of work is needed to relieve social pressure and to make sure necessary tasks are no longer left pending for no better reason than because we are currently detained in a thought pattern that will not accept anything that doesn’t carry a price tag. All would benefit whereas at the moment the unemployed not only suffer, but their potential also remains untapped. To be condemned to inaction on the one hand, and reviled as a parasite on the other, is truly sickening over time. Voluntary programs are of the essence .. if budget currently squandered on pointless application courses, were made available for self-responsible work projects such as community gardens, tutoring, or to realize hundreds of other ideas, the public would have real benefits from it and the unemployed would be involved and could experience personal growth in their chosen tasks.
Mind you, this is not about forced labor. It’s about voluntary participation in projects that are close to the hearts of those involved, about activities at self-chosen conditions outside of market requirements. Who knows what beneficent ideas might be implemented – as a society in transformation, we must not miss out on this potential.
Business ideas off the market’s beaten paths
Many an unemployed person would also like to move into self-employment, but can only raise the seed capital with a credit. Since the chance of having success with a small business in this country is often stifled in the bud by excessive taxation, the potential remains unrealized. Who would plunge into debt, if the chances of success resemble those of a lottery win? Even excellent concepts almost never pick up right away – which is exactly what seems to be expected though, since any support is cut off two months after opening leaving a freshly opened shop with the requirement to cover social security, livelihood and fixed costs of the company practically overnight. Why is there no business model in which the former unemployed person self-supports in part, while getting the rest as demand-oriented subsidies for a reasonable amount of time? Because it would be unfair toward the small enterprises already in business? True – but the injustice is not the assistance given to those trying to make a virtue of necessity after being displaced from the labor market and implementing their ideas. The outrageous injustice is, how small businesses, which represent the largest share of the business community, are generally treated. The solution is simple; they, too, need extensive support, facilitation and reduction of bureaucracy – which would bring much more than it costs, stimulating the economy massively – not least of all because less depletion means more purchasing power.
Reduction of working time
Does it not cost approximately the same for a state to pay an unemployed person’s complete living expense while another person works full time – compared to the concept that two people share one full-time job and both their salaries are topped up to an acceptable level? The current approach is, to place way too heavy a load on people who have a job, whilst accusing all those who could not find one of laziness. Changing that would be truly family-friendly policy, which is precisely what the conservative party (to whom the nuclear family is especially dear and sacred, according to their own protestations) can pride themselves on least of all. Savings for public health insurance are to be expected as well, because we all would no longer have to live in constant existential fear – currently leading to massive health risk on several levels. In the end, the question arises whether the much debated unconditional basic income may not actually be the cheapest option if regarding the situation from the perspective of society as a whole, considering all long-term follow-up costs. Immense administrative expenses, constant checks, forced educational measures, budget pots for reintegration and the aforementioned cost of health insurance would simply cease to exist. At the same time the opportunity for further education and training after people’s own interests would then be open to everyone. Inclusion instead of aimless and boundless money dissipation should be the goal. Also, the part-time model comes about all by itself in this setting, because anyone working too many hours now, will cut work time so as to maintain their wage level – and thus make room for others who want to have more than just their basic needs covered. This novel approach to real initiative and freedom of choice could bring a completely new quality in the world of work.
Future of work
An army of dull command executers is no longer required in this modern age – the future of work very clearly lies in more complex tasks requiring a high degree of individual responsibility and constant willingness to further one’s education. Could persons affected by unemployment self organize instead of being incapacitated, this would be an opportunity to exchange knowledge and to put in place first overall social signals toward self-sufficiency and initiative. We need more workshops, training establishments and training rooms accessible (or at least affordable) to everyone – facilities for exchange and experimentation, encounter and self-organization. Unfortunately however, independently minded, organized and networked unemployed persons – or, more generally, citizens – are not in the sense of the profiteers of the current situation. And so everything remains the same on the ‘island of the no longer quite so blessed’.
Unemployment as a boogeyman
One must not overlook one thing: unemployment is expensive for the general public, but for the big winners in the economy – who maintain close ties with politics – it is a great thing. The aim is not to help people back on their feet, and certainly not to provide work for all. Unemployed people are the wagging finger used in our system of organized exploitation. The world of work, as it is today, takes from us the very will to live, paralyzes all creativity, reminds us every day of how interchangeable and unimportant we are. But whoever has work, is at least not unemployed …
Conflicts of interest
Phrases like “whatever creates jobs is social” sound even more cynical, considering the context in which they are always used, namely when it comes to the interests of capital owners. In a rather eerie way, these slogans, oversimplified to a point of distortion, are reminiscent of similar phrases from our dark recent past.
Rectified and truthful, at best this sentence could read:
“whatever creates work sufficient to live on, appreciative, beneficial for society and meaningful, is social”
This unspeakable shortening to “work = good” is one of the worst perversions of reality.
Incidentally what is never uttered, is the reversal of the sentence: That everything, which makes labor expendable is therefore anti-social. But lo and behold – rationalization, downsizing and even outsourcing are being justified with the argument of competitiveness (without which – please marvel again on the elegant reinterpretation of reality – jobs could be lost), but as soon as business ethics, consumer protection or environmental protection are required – things vital for all of us – the tables are quickly turned and the protection of jobs is unabashedly used as the all-destroying killer argument.
So companies remain competitive (which excuses everything, because it really protects jobs) by destroying the environment, keeping products harmful to health legal through political pressure, manipulating and lying to us all day long as consumers … and of course by cutting back on jobs to relieve economic pressure. The confidence with which this apparent contradiction is defended and every critic is defamed as a social romantic, speaks volumes about the power relations in our society.
Now, rationalization as such is certainly nothing bad. The rise of our civilization would not have been possible without labor division, no matter how far one goes back, specialization has always brought an advantage. At the same time, the human mind is not meant to be a small cog in a large machine, repeating individual work steps endlessly. To have a sense of meaningfulness, we need the experience of achievement, having made something ourselves, having finished a task or having helped someone. As necessary a step it has been to summarize people into a kind of big machine to form the basis of our technological development – it’s time to leave this modern type of slavery behind us. Generations have sacrificed their health in weaving mills, steel mills, assembly belts and behind screens in order to bring us up to the current state. The fruits of their labor were skimmed off, resulting in the gigantic accumulation of wealth in a few hands, all the while being reinvested in the constant modernization of the equipment and therefore – cynically – used to make them redundant. The companies were quite literally raised on workers’ backs, but now the technology is fully mature and runs almost by itself.
The welfare of the workers and employees was rarely a concern to companies. Without fierce battles by trade unions of days gone by, there wouldn’t be any paid vacation, no limitation of working hours and quite a few other things as well. Any improvement had to be wrestled from them, vigorously demanded, and constantly defended. And as can be observed, the unions have been taken with the dominant capitalist “logic” – whereupon regression at all levels promptly follows and other social achievements come under attack as well.. All-in contracts, temp work, monitoring and pressure are on the rise while real wages decline. Corporations consider their success – despite the obligatory lip service in brochures and image films – not as a joint effort, they see little obligation to their employees or even towards society. The fact that they cut off their own air supply by allowing for ever broader layers of society to become impoverished, may end up breaking their back, but long before that it is us who suffer – those laid off and coerced under the ruthless and antisocial meritocracy that the economy keeps defending with the same old threadbare arguments. Stubbornly they spread the myth that for every hard-working, honest person a living wage through labor is still possible. What sort of work are they referring to, exactly? Precarious wage jobs that need to be subsidized by the general public (see Hartz 4 “1 Euro jobbers in Germany”)? Wage labor as an end in itself, only raison d’être and disciplinary measure all at once?
Where this Ideology – unless we defend ourselves against it – eventually leads, can be seen through the following historical example:
Early forms of the state compulsory labor in the 17th century
… Poverty was now seen as the result of non-work and work as a cure for poverty ….
… With physical violence, they forced people to abandon their criminal tendencies and to accept work as the meaning of life. In Amsterdam workhouse was locked stubbornly idlers in a room that was gradually filled with water. The detainees could then decide: Either he drowned or he started to pump continuously, that is to work. …
Then as now, these educational activities had no other reason, than the demand for cheap labor. Ideology was a welcome fog grenade to justify this slavery.
..The Capitalists lowered wages to an absolute minimum, in the hope that the naked misery would drive the workers in the factories. The most effective method eventually proved to be the introduction of machinery, dictating the pace of the workers and pressing any vitality out of their world
..The First entrepreneurs despaired that the workers had no sense of acquisition and still had an concept of “enough” …
There are only two long-term solutions: either to split existing work fairly or to give a social dividend to people for whom there is no place now. The pressure to be able to state everyone’s contribution in monetary dimensions, costs us dearly in many ways, for each system includes actors whose benefits can not be seen at first glance, but without whom the efficiency suffers massively or the system even collapses. What is the precise monetary value, what is the return on investment for the repair of a bridge, the operation of a library, the granting of a scholarship? The guy with the worst performance statistics may be the one everybody else turns to, when the “top performers” are at their wit’s end. Yet, his contribution does not show up in any statistic.
Who benefits from the current state?
On the one hand it is hard not to notice that statistics and consequently the rating, and hence the creditworthiness of the country are glossed over here, by means of forcing people into expensive and unfortunately often pointless courses. Participants in this form of training, don’t show up in unemployment statistics – a cute little trick, that hasn’t been sufficient to hide the true state of affairs for quite some time now.
Registered as unemployed
According to EU figures, there are 251,800 unemployed in Austria. In reality, however, 487,100 people are without a job, according to the Agenda Austria. They are “hidden” in the statistics.
NEET – Not in Education, Employment or Training
In January 2012, 1.5 million more young people in the European Union were out of work than there were before the crisis in 2008. Similarly, the proportion of young NEET rose from 10.8 percent in 2008 to 12.8 percent in the year 2010. Altogether around 7.5 million young people were therefore in a NEET situation (European Commission 2011, p 3). In Austria, some 78,000 young people count among the NEET group. Euro Found (2012) calculated the annual economic cost of the NEET group for Austria with EUR 3.17 billion. This corresponds to approximately 1.06 per cent of Austria’s GDP. Action, however, is paramount not only due to the economic costs, but mainly because of the social consequences.
One may assume, that at least 100 000 more people who do not register as unemployed out of shame or aversion, can be added to the just under 500.000 of whom some are hidden in courses. This contrasts with about 60.000 open jobs.
But that’s not all: The management of the system’s losers has been turned into an industry in Austria. Training centers with clear profit orientation, some of them quite dodgy, have almost monopolized the training of unemployed, and – even more worryingly – afford even the consulting and preparational work designed to help those willing to retrain to come to a decision. It is handled as can be expected: alternatives are withheld, pressure is applied, wear down tactics are being used, unrealistic promises are made. Suffice it to say this much about this very lucrative and scandal-shaken industry for now: its institutions’ main concern is undoubtedly something other than the welfare of the individuals entrusted to them – as much as individual trainers and psychologists may sometimes go out of their way for their wards.
Last but not least
As it stands, the majority of “troublemakers” have good reasons to reject the world of work as it currently presents itself, and would be perfectly willing to cooperate and collaborate under humanely acceptable circumstances. Possibly, a percentage beyond anybody’s help still remains – people who have truly turned their back on the world and refuse to get involved in any way. But expressing complete mistrust toward all the others in order to control this small proportion of the unemployed, does nothing than to devalue and incapacitate them, taking away all their drive and motivation and preventing them from sharing and effectively using their many experiences and skills for themselves and for others. What’s sorely needed are encouragement for self-organization, the sharing of knowledge and resources and better offers for education – with special emphasis on activities of central importance for the whole world in the coming years, (trauma counseling, integration, water treatment, recycling, climate change, alternative energy, sustainable agriculture, afforestation, robotics, and in particular the networking of these issues). The deployment options for people looking for a new and meaningful activity field range from local planning work to assistance and knowledge transfer in the immediate environment to intensive travel. Many of these activities will not be profitable in the traditional economic sense, but are objects of the greatest and most urgent importance. We must face the reality that our ecological survival is not guaranteed if we rely on the much-quoted “invisible hand of the market”, to which long-term thinking is alien. Our world is changing faster than ever, new technologies are used and are often already outdated by the next and its following technical generation even before their consequences fully show. Facilitation of work processes by advancing technology and automation should further and free mankind, finally allowing us to take care of each other and our children, instead of spending the days of our lives with some dull but necessary activities. Unfortunately, our collective sense of responsibility is not growing as fast as our abilities do, and so we face huge problems, one of the largest being inequity. Social Darwinism – which incidentally by no means leads to the best, brightest and strongest but rather to those with the largest initial advantage coming out on top – must receive a clear rejection. Knowledge, understanding and action – in the best interest of all people living and of future generations, must be our directives.
This article, as extensive as it appears, can only provide an overview and scratch the surface. Deeper analysis of the particular issues however will definitely follow.
The information on the practices of AMS is based on reports from persons affected.
Authors: Nikolaus Manoussakis, Serena Nebo