Editorial: Labor's ever-changing direction

Workers at the Town of Brookhaven recycling center Workers at the Town of Brookhaven recycling center in Yaphank. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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As we celebrate the achievements of American workers with Labor Day barbecues, ballgames and beach outings, each of us should also step back and think about the powerful forces at work reshaping labor itself.

The American workforce is shifting and shrinking. The consequences -- expected tectonic social and economic changes -- are severe. So you need to ask yourself:

Will I be on the right side of the chasm opening up? Or will I be stranded?Eurh

For years, the medium-skilled and lower-skilled jobs that have meant middle-class success for millions of Americans have been disappearing. Technology and innovation have a lot to do with that: Once upon a recent time, 100 people worked in a factory. Then 50 people could do the work of 100. Then 10. Then one supervisor and a crew of robots -- and a team that designs robots. Globalization, too, has been a factor: Sometimes it's just cheaper to have work done overseas.

Economists have been warning for years about the impact of these forces on jobs. What's different now is that we're living those predictions. And experts are saying our labor force participation rate -- the percent of those at least 16 years old in the labor force -- won't ever recover. It was 67.3 percent in the beginning of 2000. Now that number has dropped to 62.9 -- a decline of 6.5 percent.

Those numbers represent real people. Textile workers in North Carolina, automobile assembly line workers in Detroit, Grumman employees on Long Island -- all of them rode a pathway to success that has been irretrievably fractured. We all know someone who happily found a lifetime job -- only to discover later that it didn't last a lifetime.

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The aftermath often is traumatic. That's because work is part of our national fiber. It defines who we are, and sustains our self-esteem.

Currently, about 15 percent of workers in the United States are underemployed -- defined as being out of work or working part time when they want to work full time. That figure does not include people working jobs for which they are overqualified. The swing from good-paying manufacturing jobs to minimum-wage service industry jobs has had a devastating effect on wages.

We need to be clear and honest about the nature of these changes: We can't stop them. We're long past that point. Nor should we want to stop them. Innovation is inexorable, and mostly good. Some three-quarters of Americans worked in agriculture in 1870. After decades of improvements in equipment and techniques in farming, less than 2 percent of our people produce our food today, and we have no shortage of food. So we're not going back, we're not retreating from our wonderful successes.

But these perplexing times pose challenges for elected officials, policy-makers and educators -- and for you.

As companies continue to ruthlessly pursue efficiency and produce ever more with ever fewer workers -- an undeniably good goal -- our leaders will need to react to the lamentable side effect of increasing unemployment in some areas of the economy and re-examine our social contract with one another. What is our degree of responsibility as a society for those who are shut out of work?

Your task is to make sure you're not one of them. Do whatever you can to be on the right side of this yawning chasm. Acquire skills appropriate for these times. Get as much education as you can -- and understand that as more people do so, that particular bar gets raised, too.

And work on being as adaptable as possible -- because the pace of modern change can be dizzying. A recent study of the youngest baby boomers found that between the ages of 18 and 46 they held an average of 11 jobs. That's 2.5 years per job. In other words, be prepared.

Change is upon us. Each of us needs to find a solution that works for us.

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