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Monday, August 02, 2010

Serfs and slaves

It has been said that there are two types of people in this world: those who maintain that there are two types of people in this world, and those who don't. I have generally fallen into the latter category, but in my yokel view of economics and employment, I find myself in the former.*

In our current economy, voluntary job mobility is mostly a thing of the past: workers would rather keep the jobs that they already have, even crappy jobs, than dive into a job market where there are five job seekers for every available job. There are exceptions, of course. But I believe the majority of job searches these days are the result of involuntary separations. And job seekers are faced with a choice: search for a job within a reasonable (or, at least, doable) commuting distance from their current residence, or pull up stakes and relocate to wherever they can find a job.

Workers generally fall into two broad categories: those who are free to move about to wherever the jobs are, and those who are not. Employers are eager to encourage the existence of both groups. Mobile workers are like chits on a battlefield map, units that can be moved from place to place, flexible resources to be used and discarded as needed. Workers who lack this mobility are fixed resources that are available regardless of varying circumstances, and who can be counted on not to leave on their own regardless of how bad things get, or how attractive things are elsewhere.

The Russian philosopher-poet Illya Kuryakin once said "No man is free who works for a living." This is even more true in an economy where the options for workers are to remain in a job situation, no matter how undesirable, or face the prospect of long-term unemployment and the loss of the ability to support themselves and their families. In this sense no workers are free men; all workers are now "slaves."
"We have chains, though no eye beholds them; and are slaves, though men call us free." - Oscar Wilde, "The Young King"
But some of them are slaves who can be moved from place to place, and some of them are bound to the land - "serfs." This serfdom arises from many causes. People may own houses or property and be unable to sell them - at least, not without taking a hefty loss. Family obligations, including care of elderly parents (coupled with a reluctance to simply toss these parents into the nearest convenient nursing home) may bind people to one area. Other conditions and attachments can arise that will prevent some people from being as mobile as others. These "serfs" are forced to seek employment within daily commuting range of their places of residence, or - in the event that the only employment securable is beyond a workable commuting range - set themselves up in temporary residences for the work week and travel back and forth between their home base and their temporary residence on weekends, to tend to all the house maintenance and yard and garden tasks incumbent upon any homeowner.**

Peripatetic "slaves" consider themselves to be in some way superior and more sophisticated than the land-bound "serfs." Having forsaken (or divested themselves of) any binding obligations of family support, owning no property that cannot be loaded into a car and moved in a single weekend, and having no fixed sense of community or even place, they are free to come and go as the job dictates.*** Their lives are lived at the whim of their employers, and their freedom may simply be an illusion brought on by a detachment caused by loss of both anchor and rudder.

Which are you? Can you come and go as you please, and quit jobs and change residences as you will? Is the course of your life dictated by your employer, or by your need to travel to seek employment? Or are you bound in a web of obligations by chains of debt and duty?

What can we do to change this?

See also:
Economist's View: A Curious Unemployment Picture Gets More Curious
Beveridge Worries - Paul Krugman Blog -

*Or possibly the other way around. Better look those words up to be sure.
**This option may be made unworkable in the event that the worker is a primary caregiver or source of aid to a relative who is only partially independent. My grandfather actually had to do this in the 1950's, leaving my grandmother to care for several young boys (and two college-age girls) during the week and then returning to Nanticoke on the weekends.
***An extreme case is of this is the main character from Up in the Air, whose existence is entirely transient. I really need to read/see that sometime.


hedera said...

In the early 1980s, I worked for the accounting firm, Coopers & Lybrand, as their librarian and records manager. It was a high-stress job with relatively low rewards; I was burning out, and it was pretty clear that my salary was topping out. What to do? It wasn't possible for me to change jobs in the library profession and stay in the Bay Area - I had no "network" outside special (corporate) libraries, and every job had at least 27 applicants, the top 5 of which had PhD's or double Masters degrees. But I didn't want to leave the Bay Area, as my parents and sister still lived here.

My decision was to change careers to data processing, and I did so. It took me most of 5 years, and I was materially helped when I met and married my second husband. A second income is really helpful when the new job in the new career entails a 25% pay cut.

I don't know what I'd do in your shoes. It's a very difficult position. My thoughts are with you.

The Landlady said...


D.B. Echo said...

I wish more companies were up to speed with telecommuting. In my last job, about half of what I did could have been done from anywhere, with the right programs (which really just boiled down to the right set of equations), but the other half actually required direct access to physical objects. But I think there are many jobs which could be completely replaced with telecommuting - if companies were willing to take the leap, let go of the leash, and trust their employees to do their jobs. I have heard of big advances in monitoring of telecommuting employees to make sure they are actually on the job - measuring results isn't enough, I guess!

It's nice to hear from you here, The Landlady!