Sunday, October 07, 2007

What Kind of Jobs?

In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called an election, the purpose of which was straightforward. He was seeking a mandate from Canadians to do something which they had consistently and steadfastly refused to do for one hundred and twenty years: enter into a free trade agreement with the United States. One of the chief benefits of the agreement, he said, was that Canadians would be deluged with "jobs, jobs, jobs." Mulroney won the election; and, six years later, the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) morphed into NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

From the perspective of twenty years ago, it would appear that Mulroney was, indeed, a prophet. According to a report in The Globe and Mail last week, the employment picture in Canada is the best it has been in thirty-three years: "Canada's jobless rate surprisingly fell to a thirty-three year low of 5.9% last month after employers added 51,000 jobs. Wages are rising at the fastest pace in a decade and labour shortages -- not tightening credit conditions -- are what's most worrying executives."

In the same week, a report written by Armine Yalnizyan for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, reached the following conclusion: "a surging economy has coincided with a process of redistributing incomes from the less affluent to the richest." After analysing data from Statistics Canada, Yalnizyan claimed that, "only the richest 5% enjoy the spoils of economic progress . . . and this is in the best economic times." Canadians have known good economic times before. But this time, said Yalnizyan, things are different: "Something significant is shifting in Canada. A generation ago, the gains from economic growth were more widespread, and the taxes generated by that era of prosperity financed investments across the country, in every neighbourhood, that enhanced the quality of life for all citizens."

My generation benefited directly from those investments. Governments built public schools, universities, roads, hospitals and community recreation facilities. And, when we followed the conventional wisdom and graduated from institutions of higher learning, lo and behold, there were jobs waiting for us. Moreover -- it now seems particularly quaint -- we only needed one of those jobs to pay the bills.

Our children face a much different world. In a column in Friday's New York Times, Bob Herbert cites a study which was released last spring. The study showed that "men who are now in their thirties earn less than their fathers' generation did at the same age. The median income for men in their thirties in 1974, in today's inflation adjusted dollars, was $40,210. According to the study, which used Census figures from 2004, those annual earnings have dropped to $35,010."

There are those who claim that this phenomenon is the inevitable consequence of free trade -- more jobs at lower salaries. Herbert claims that it is the consequence of a failure of imagination. "In the first two or three decades after World War II," he writes, "men and women of talent and vision gave us The Marshall Plan, the G.I. Bill, the interstate highway program, the Peace Corps, the space program, the civil rights movement and much more."

Our son recently returned home after having received an Honours B.A. and teaching for a year in South Korea. He then headed for Toronto, seeking a career. What he found was lots of jobs for $8 - $10 an hour --not enough to pay the bills. He is home now, where rent and food are free and he is working two jobs, hoping to eventually go to graduate school, where he can acquire marketable skills. And he is thinking of returning to Asia -- because, when he posted his resume on a website for teachers of English as a second language, within one night he got six inquiries from China and, within two days, three job offers from South Korea.

Well, some will say, his degree has opened doors for him. True. My wife and I have always encouraged our children to see the world. As someone who can earn a good living teaching in Asia or Europe or South America, he thinks of himself as a citizen of the world. And yet . . . there is something wrong with this picture. When Mike Harris slashed nursing jobs as part of the "Common Sense Revolution," he told those recently unemployed professionals, "Just as Hula Hoops went out and those workers would have to have a factory and a company that would manufacture something else that's in, it's the same in government, and you know, governments have put off these decisions for so many years, that restructuring sometimes is painful." Given the fact that, with an aging population the need for nurses surged, Mr. Harris was -- to put it charitably -- myopic.

We have lived for a generation with myopic leaders. Our son will make his way in the world. But there are so many more who have not had his advantages -- or who have not had the advantages we baby boomers have had. The late John Kenneth Galbraith loved to tell the story of how his father -- a small town Ontario teacher, farmer and politician -- during a local election, mounted a pile of manure and apologized to his audience for standing on his opponent's platform. If those good people had no trouble recognizing horse manure, neither should we.

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