Re: Wynne wants to stop spread of precarious work, Feb. 26

Posted on March 2, 2013 in Debates – opinion/
Mar 02 2013. Sigmund Roseth

As a retiree, I cringe when I see the socio-economic problems the younger generation faces in the employment market. Long gone are the days when you could, with limited education, walk into a well-paying labour job and expect to work there until retirement.

The “industrial revolution” of yore created more jobs than it destroyed. Though many of the new jobs were back-breaking labour and poorly paid, adjustment in labour laws and the advent of unions, made life tolerable for the working class and comfortable for the upper, non-landed gentry. The end result was a middle-class of reasonable security and comfort.

Not anymore. Toffler’s “Future Shock” is here with a vengeance; and the schism between the rich and the working poor is becoming an abyss. Students with huge debt are facing underemployment, if any, and often work in fields unrelated to their education and training.

Life was never a bed of roses for me, but there was always a future for a determined and hard-working person. Most of us would want to be productive and able to feel validated and affirmed for who and what we are. A life of underemployment or intermittent, contractual work is not conducive to such feelings. Unless we can find a way of engaging these marginal workers, we are going to face a social class division that will make Middle Ages Britain look positively egalitarian.

I recall “guaranteed income” being bandied about in my economics class at university, long ago. I remember Pierre Berton arguing for it. His book “The Smug Minority” (McClelland social and Stewart, 1968), and John Porter’s “The Vertical Mosaic” gave numbers to the story of social divide. The Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith also championed the underdog. So here we are, 45 years hence; and not much has changed. If anything, the Vertical Mosaic is getting even more vertical — if that is possible. Or, at least, harder to climb.

Pierre Berton said then that if, with our productive, mechanized society, we can produce every good needed for society with less than full employment, and if someone is content to sit on the back porch and drink beer, he should be afforded a basic, minimum income in order to live his rather mentally limited life. That was in 1968. It is even truer today.

We don’t need more iPads and game consoles to keep the masses amused. We need a more level playing field. If the economic pie is divided more evenly, the poor will still be poor, just less so; and the rich will still be the rich, though perhaps less so, and they can still have their sailboats and other expensive toys appropriate for their station in life.
Problem is, in our imperfect democracy of imperfect humans, the “unwashed masses” are too ignorant, intimidated and “brainwashed” to demand change through our political institutions. Selfishness, greed and foolishness go hand in hand.

I recall a fellow worker in the mid 1960s. When I asked him why he was supporting the Conservative Party in the federal election, since he was a working-class, union member. His answer was not unique, but irrational: “I will not always be working class,” he said. “And when I am rich, I want the Conservative in charge.”

Well, he never got rich, but it seems he did get his way — ultimately.

Sigmund Roseth, Mississauga

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