Is any job better than no job? The answer is almost always “yes”, isn’t it? But where are they?

From the New York Times discussion group of notables.

Two things really stand out about the current bad times. One, is that for some of us, the 1970’s and early eighties weren’t that long ago! (Or, at least, it feels that way.) Especially if you grew up with a bit of—I don’t know if the term is used as much anymore–a “blue collar” background, the idea that anyone should get choosy in a recession doesn’t really sound like the path to success.

This is how it was in “blue collar” New Jersey in 1974, or 1980 or ’82. The jobs disappeared, and then, there weren’t any easy replacements. So, you had to be very creative. Growing up in Somerset County, which has been, and was then(!), a prosperous far suburban community for the entire postwar era, meant that if you tried at it, you could find something. It wasn’t necessarily like a mill town out in the Midwest or Pennsylvania, where when the factory disappears, there are literally no jobs left and the people have to leave. It was more like “old economy” factories closing, or construction turning down, and then suddenly, whatever someone did, wasn’t being sought anymore. And you had to scramble.

But the second thing that’s noteworthy is how creative the ruling class gets with both language and with history. The euphemisms and the Revisionist thinking really flows with these characters.

Let me just ramble for a bit:

You’ve probably gleaned here and there if you follow this blog that I am politically more a progressive or a liberal. I think some of the greatest achievements of the 20th century came when government was put in to solve a task, especially a chronic one from the 19th century that had caused much misery. This really was our legacy from our grandparents or great-grandparents generation, the last to really know Want as a ever-present visitor.

The trouble today is any number of wise-asses who came of age in that mid 20th century time of bounty are trying to push us all back into the 19th when it comes to employment and the work world. I think Ronald Reagan was the top guy for this attitude in America, but every country has them.

So what I’m getting at here is that government policy makers used to spend considerable time figuring out ways to keep people employed. Of course, the (regulated) free market and general demand are the magic or the juice that makes things go. But the visible hand of government was also there, providing the “stimulus”, in today’s language. But in plain terms, everyone remembered the Depression and what the elected officials knew was that “full employment”–a term you don’t hear so often these days–was something they had to deliver on, or else.

And that meant that, once these iconic and somewhat silly-sounding Depression-era jobs programs came to an end—ones like the WPA or the NRA—the federal government came up with more sophisticated schemes like the military, the federal bureaucracy, the education establishment. And various tax regimes that were designed to keep people in jobs, everything from farm supports to interest deductions.

So this is what you had in the 1950’s and ’60’s. It broke down a bit, like I mentioned, during the seventies—and mostly because of inflation and the oil shocks. But the assumptions were that the government had a hand in making sure jobs–stable jobs—were out there as a matter of course. And getting people in them without a lot of delay and bureaucracy.

Nowadays I would say it’s a very different scene. The people who built their careers in those 20th century halcyon days don’t seem to think that anyone should look to getting the government involved in directing employment. They’ve convinced themselves that somehow it was a “free market” that got them their good fortune—that government had no role in it. And that anyone looking to government as the spark or engine in job creation is in bed with Lenin.

In this kind of Brave New World, what kind of relief can we give to the job seeker, and get when we are looking?

One of the biggest problems that I see is that it’s hard to know where the real jobs are. The internet does wonders, but one thing it’s awful at is weeding out false information and outright fraud.

Back when a job offerer had to pay a newspaper to advertise a job ad, you got a good indication that there really was a job there (otherwise the government or business was just wasting their money). Sure, some companies had high turnover and were just always looking. But if a job ad appeared, chances are, there was a job.

Now, posting job ads costs nothing. So you have no way to know if it’s really even a job. Some businesses simply want to collect resume information. So they put out “leads” that are maybe fifth-hand notices coming from someone else’s job board. They’re just building a portfolio of names. As someone who gave up TV for the net in the ’90’s, I saw this a lot starting around 2003.

Job postings should be regulated by the government, as a fair labor practice. The last thing that people who want one should be having to do is waste time guessing what are the real jobs. “Trust the reputation of the site” is a cop-out. The reputation of the site should be assured by a regulator. If you post too much nonsense or falsehood about your hiring, you should be subject to a Labor Department fine.

I don’t think that’s so pie-in-the-sky. The real estate market already seems to be moving to that sort of model, where a lot of the advertising and information sharing happens on the web. With these satellite images available, it’s hard to say that the house really isn’t there, or that the agent is collecting customer names in the hopes of selling them a house in the future. But if any sort of fraud were to begin via the net (say, maybe involving the chain-of-title to foreclosed properties), you can bet that the real estate lobby would be all over the government to crack down on how the Internet is used for real estate.

So knowing where the jobs really are is becoming more and more difficult. But also, the language of employment itself is just becoming more vague and loopy–to the point that you don’t really know what the offer or status of a job even is.

In normal day-to-day things, when people start getting creative with words and definitions, you often feel the con is going down. The reason that people are playing with the definitions is that they’re trying to get you to do something different, or see things differently, than what you think the situation is.

So the other big problem is defining what the terms of a job are. What is the “employment role”?

Japan is a country that struggles with this worse than America. Here, there are very specific job statuses, like permanent employee, contract employee, dispatch employee. But what gets difficult is that there is always pressure to “renegotiate” (i.e. suffer a breach to) the terms you have.

But in America, it sounds like “right to work” (i.e. no contractual promise in the labor agreement) is turning all work into “projects” or “opportunities” where the illusion of longer-term employment is only a way to keep the arrangement from being one of an arms-length service provider coming in as an independent contractor (which has its own pitfalls for a company in that such arrangements usually cost a lot more.)

If the government required companies to categorize the type of work offered in more concrete terms (since the job offerer has the superior information and should have to divulge this), this would also do a lot to help job seekers. A job seeker would know if he/she is being offered, at the outset, project work or something that more compared to a “real job” like the thing the postwar 20th century generation got. And if, as so often happens these days, the employer decides to ‘change their mind’ once an agreement has been reached, then at least there is a well-defined vocabulary and hopefully a bit of a paper trail to show who hasn’t really dealt fairly.

And what this would also tend to do is highlight the contrast between the deals that some get and what others get, and tend to tear down some of the caste structure that is being built into the work world. If someone is not being offered a long-term role, then they should be compensated like an outside service provider. If the work world is organizing itself in such a way to keep out willing workers, then we need to have a national dialogue about what makes the “real job” job holders so special that they get to keep. (I think that’s happening in Japan with this “sei sha’in” status, but it’s always hard to tell with Japan.)

Sorry for the ramble, and I realize that maybe I’m not clear with one or two examples about how sloppy language is making finding and getting jobs even harder. But this breakdown of definitions and encouragement of fraud that really goes to why job creation and long-term employment seems to be such a problem nowadays.