Out of Unemployment Into Leisure
WHATEVER else it may be, civilization is beyond doubt a way of life which tends to free human beings from necessity to labor, and at its best it is also a way of life which moves men to work when they are under no economic need to do so. One product of civilization is relatively abundant free time, which includes both leisure and unemployment.
Leisure, of course, is free time in which one is secure in doing nothing, if doing nothing is what one wants to do, while unemployment is free time in which one feels insecure about his immediate future. This insecurity now presses upon industry and politics, and demands the attention of the thoughtful.
Leisure and unemployment grade insensibly into each other, and are not easily separated. A forehanded workingman, with a stake laid by, may be counted in unemployment statistics, but if he goes fishing or traveling during the lay-off he is obviously a member of the leisure class for the time being. But the lay-off may continue until fear overtakes him: then he becomes truly, as well as statistically, unemployed. Mere absence from the pay roll for one who is usually gainfully employed is not necessarily unemployment, although it is the fashion to build unemployment totals on that basis. At present no doubt some persons are counted as unemployed who have merely changed occupations under economic pressure. Large numbers of young men and women have returned, for instance, to the farms of their origin. There they receive perhaps only food and shelter in return for their work, and the ‘payday jobs’ can have them back any day; but nevertheless they possess, through family sentiment, a power to wait which the urban unemployed seldom enjoys.
Both leisure and unemployment flow from increased efficiency in producing desired goods and services. Changing desire can glut a market, yet desires are not easily charted or controlled.
Wants may be infinite in variety and extent, but they are always under the restraint of fear, which rouses the desire for security. To want a thing is also to want the security in which to use or enjoy it. Many influences meet in a wide market glut, but fear is especially active then, revealing itself in more desire for security and less desire for goods. When fear enters, thrift follows; and many persons able to continue buying goods at the old rate prefer to buy future income or enlarge their reserves. This preference reënforces, at least temporarily, the heavier drag on consumption arising from sheer inability to buy because of lower earnings.
Merely shortening the hours of labor does not of itself reduce unemployment, except for brief periods. A short working day at low wages means low purchasing power; and it is obvious that no industry, short of monopoly, can pay high wages for short hours unless the public can and will take off its hands promptly the goods produced by operations so efficient that the returns defray these high wages and all other costs and leave a profit. There is no really effective way of reducing industrial unemployment except by reducing the insecurity of industrial operatives.
However, it is equally clear that no plan to reduce industrial insecurity can endure for long which causes thrifty — or, if you please, timid — folk to feel that the situation is being stabilized at their expense. Under a price level which seems to them unfair, they restrict their purchases; and, realizing the inevitable result of unsound policy, they may send their savings into other fields, since capital is the most fluid element in modern economic life, with an uncanny ability to flee the scene of rash experiment.
The modern man out of work and the modern man of leisure are alike growths of our civilization; but the former is a dusty, roadside weed, while the latter is a garden bloom. The leisurely live in a protected environment which frequently becomes a bore, and they are so far a specialized product that the perpetuation of family lines frequently becomes, for one reason or another, impossible. It is a commonplace that riches and life seldom walk hand in hand through many generations. While he continues, however, the man of leisure disposes of earnings which arise from the labors of others, either through his possession of capital or through the gifts of earners, or some combination of these sources, while the man out of work is rarely able to draw on either of these sources for enough to keep him in health, strength, and good cheer. Therefore the man out of work is predisposed to look upon the man of leisure as a curse, and upon himself as a martyr. In misfortune he lends ready ear to advices which tell him that as soon as the man of leisure is eliminated unemployment will cease, because then labor will get the full reward of toil and can consume all goods produced.
Is the case really so simple? While many leisured persons do next to nothing which can be measured by the yardstick of utility, others punctuate their leisure by periods of intense work. In such cases it is impossible to separate, without a case record of their lives, the period of incubation of ideas, which is usually long, from the period of organizing and presenting those ideas, which may be very short. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his essay on leisure entitled ‘An Apology for Idlers,’ indicates that his contributions, which the world would not willingly forgo, were conceived in long leisure, though we are aware they were executed with painstaking toil at the end. I know a wealthy man who appears to be leading a life of consummate leisure, yet at infrequent intervals he brings forth inventions which have probably been taking shape in the back of his mind all the time he has been fishing and golfing. Count Keyserling is a man of leisure in the sense that his philosophy scarcely could have ripened in the hurly-burly of direct, daily responsibilities; yet few will deny that he has deepened the current of thought in our time.
Sustained thought, one of the most toilsome tasks known to man and upon which social advance utterly depends, is often mistaken for idleness merely because the thinker keeps quiet, while most other toil requires motion and noise. It is probable that the unique contributions of a few leisurely persons more than overbalance, in survival value, the dead weight of those who do absolutely nothing of utility with their time. In America even the unemployed applaud the contributions of the leisured, provided that these activities are not in direct competition with what the unemployed would like to be doing for wages. Those who warm park benches read with more pride than envy the sportive exploits of yachtsmen, polo players, and amateur tennis stars.
Since so many aspects of material progress have been found to return great profits, the nursing of progress has passed from amateurs to professional groups — to laboratory and field staffs maintained by associations, foundations, corporations, or government. But for centuries man’s control over nature increased largely through the unpaid energies of individuals free from the necessity to earn their bread in the sweat of their brows. Of this patient company were Roger and Francis Bacon, John Evelyn, Gilbert White, Coke of Norfolk, Benjamin Franklin in his prosperous years, and many another investigator less known to fame. Innumerable others, almost forgotten now, could be added; for instance, the picturesque Elkanah Watson, the father of the county fair in America, who spent his leisure and his fortune importing plants and animals from the Old World to the New, acclimating them, and conducting breeding and seed-selecting experiments until his wealth was exhausted. To his hard-pressed neighbors in the Berkshircs of 1810, Watson must have seemed a man of leisure, since he was under no compulsion to arise early and work late, and because he used daylight hours for purposes which they considered play. Nevertheless Watson’s play-work meant far more to agriculture and stock raising than all the furious labors of his neighbor critics. No generation is capable of judging the ultimate utility of the often random, amateurish output of its leisured persons. Precisely because they are not on the pay roll, the results may be a long time maturing, and even then may not be measurable in coin of the realm. Who could assay in pounds sterling the value of those noble English gardens which John Evelyn laid out for his friends, or measure the value added to English life by the continued emulation of his successes in that field?
Looking backward, one perceives that civilization could never have begun or continued without leisure. The Latin civis, ‘citizen,’ is closely related to quies or ‘ quiet ’; those who were freed from necessity to labor by the possession of slaves could devote themselves to administrations and legislation. Our own Washington could scarcely have led America to independence unless he had been wealthy enough to command public respect by refusing a salary as commander in chief of the army. The responsibility of the leisured to keep government pure and effective is still taken seriously by many individuals, and sporadically finds expression in intense but shortlived reform movements, but who can say that the political responsibility of the leisured has been measurably met in racket-ridden America? Too many Americans who are free from economic compulsion have accepted other compulsions, and hurry this way and that on a schedule of recreation almost as binding as that of toil, to the disregard of the duties of citizenship involved in ownership and at the sacrifice of reflection and analysis. And yet, on the whole, it is certain that democracy, betrayed by so many of its paid servants, can find rescuers more readily among the leisured than elsewhere, since democratic distrust of salaried experts is notorious.
Civilization, it is evident, can hardly be deepened by eliminating the wellto-do leisured for the theoretical benefit of the unemployed. It may conceivably be broadened by that process; certainly is being broadened in Russia: that is to say, more Russians are in contact with the practical phases of modern civilization than were ever in contact with those phases before. But to broaden civilization without deepening it is merely deferring to another day the inevitable task of searching out and making accessible the elements of that ‘good life’ which is the objective of the human spirit at its best. As things go, the search for the more elusive elements of the ‘good fife’ proceeds to a large degree as a result of individual enthusiasms, chiefly amateur and unpaid, which can hardly be regimented and directed by government. When government steps in, the enthusiasm of their proponents evaporates, and the steam roller rouses that resentment which, among us, is inseparable from compulsion. Prohibition is a pat example of this double tendency; enthusiasts for prohibition ceased making converts after the Eighteenth Amendment passed, and attempts at enforcement soon took on the aspect of tyranny to millions of persons.
Just as leisure seems necessary to the deepening of civilization, so unemployment is necessary to its broadening. I find so eminent a person as Owen D. Young, who is usually sound as salvation, saying, ‘It is ridiculous to speak of unemployment as a necessary condition of human society.’ Well, unemployment seems to be, at the very least, an essential element in the economic progress of society, and no advancing, or enduring, people has been able to escape it for long. An agricultural society, relatively stable because the tensions of economic cycles are but feeble compared with those of an industrial society, reaches, almost inevitably, a position where its entire population cannot find adequate support at home. China, where farmers for forty centuries have suffered periodic want and famine, is an example. Of course, if the Chinese had practised rigid birth control, they might have escaped unemployment for a time, yet in that case they must have been long since overwhelmed. China has persisted and expanded, and is still expanding, solely through her surplus labor, which is another phrase for unemployment.
An industrial nation like ours, with elbowroom and ambition, still needs a labor surplus. This country would never have been so quickly colonized and developed unless men had been waiting for jobs. Picture the dislocation in the industries of that day if every man who helped to build railroads in the seventies had been pried out of a gainful, thoroughly satisfactory, employment. There were surplus men here and abroad; they went to the jobs and the roads were built. Boulder Dam will be built partly by those who, at the moment the whistle blows, are foot-loose and job-free. One reason why the automobile business grew so astonishingly fast in Michigan in the early stages of its existence was that there were unemployed in the lumber towns which had been built on the deforesting of Michigan, and because men were being thrown out of farm work by improved machinery. Of late years the unemployed farmers’ sons of the Ozarks and the Tennessee mountains, most of whom have since returned home, came North in droves to the same industry. Unemployed coal miners from Pennsylvania and West Virginia rushed to Akron, Ohio, and helped to keep the rubber industry going there. In 1917 and 1918 war needs created jobs more abundantly than ever before; they were filled by the unemployed, the partially employed, the willing to be employed, and those who, formerly leisured, no longer felt, in the tense and demanding war atmosphere, utterly secure in their free time. An unimpeded labor flow, and a reserve of labor power, are essential to the welfare of every industrial society whose economic circle is not entirely closed to opportunity. Without these we should stagnate; our deserts would remain desert, small towns would lose hope of growing into industrial cities, and capital would shrink from new enterprises.
Nevertheless, to say unemployment is necessary to industrial advance does not mean that its exaggerated phase of the moment is a matter for congratulation, or that the burden of maintaining a reasonably-sized body of surplus labor should fall upon the surplus laborers only. Of course capital nowshares the cost of excessive unemployment in loss of sales, but this is too indirect an influence to operate as a strong restraint upon industrialists when they begin to overexpand their plants. If capital and management shared more directly the cost of unemployment, they would tend to be cautious in hiring and would pay more heed to avoiding seasonal lulls on the one hand and overstocking their customers on the other.
Certain heartening experiments are being made in that direction. That of the General Electric Company, which has been well received in both industrial and sociological circles, is perhaps the most comprehensive, including provision for both normal and emergency unemployment. It takes into account the obvious fact that while a certain amount of unemployment is inevitable in a growing, advancing industry, there are periodic slumps when unemployment increases until it becomes news. Insurance against normal unemployment will be met from a fund contributed jointly by employees who choose to do so and by the company, which will provide a sum equal to the contribution of employees, plus interest on the accumulations. Administration is shared by the company and the contributors, but the company pays the expenses of administration during a trial period of two years. This fund will increase when business is good and decrease when business is bad. When disbursements reach two per cent of the average weekly earnings of contributing employees, the company agrees to put into effect an emergency programme. The chief feature of this emergency programme is a levy of one per cent of their earnings upon the workers drawing 50 per cent or more of their normal pay, the sum so collected to be matched dollar for dollar by the company. As far as normal unemployment is concerned, the contribution is voluntary with the individual; in a declared emergency, however, the levy runs against all employees at the plant at which the emergency exists, and also against the general staff not on a particular works pay roll, their contribution being rated by and allotted according to the number of contributing members in each plant.
This plan has the merit of avoiding many of the difficulties inherent in unemployment insurance dictated and managed by government. It puts a premium upon those adjustments of labor to output, and of output to market, which tend to reduce the need for drawing on unemployment funds. In busy times this means slow increase of working force, meeting the demands of busy departments by transferring operatives from less busy departments, keeping additions down by overtime work, and postponing plant renewals and maintenance work as long as possible. When orders begin to fall off, it means building standard goods for stock, pushing sales for future deliveries, improving plant by doing deferred work, and using the regular help as far as possible in all improvements, even in construction. Also there are provisions to fit the unemployment payments into a substantial framework of employee protection already existing, which includes old age or disability pension, disability relief, and death benefits. The new plan contemplates relief by payments up to twenty dollars weekly for not more than ten weeks in any year, and by loans up to two hundred dollars.
No government agency could hope to make these adjustments as well as the industry itself can make them. It is to be noted, too, that the plan is not compulsory but elective, except as regards the small minorities not participating in various plants, and then only in case of emergency. (In twelve plants in seven states the percentage of participants at last report ranges from 63 per cent to 100 per cent, with the percentages of participants increasing daily.) Consequently, it is part of the bargain which is the vital hinge of American industry. It lines up with democracy on the one hand and efficiency on the other, escaping entirely the blight of bureaucracy. It can be easily changed by a vote of two thirds of the administrators, when their vote has been sanctioned by a majority vote of the contributing employees voting thereon. Equally important, it eliminates the possibility of an unemployed man dodging a job when one is offered — a crying evil under the British official ‘dole’ system, where some prefer a devitalizing leisure on a low standard of living to its alternative, work at going wages. Every wage earner contributing to the fund has a direct interest in seeing that an out-of-work gets back on the job at the earliest possible moment. This unofficial inspection by one’s mates is bound to be more effective than visits by state or government inspectors.
Some variation of this plan would seem to lie in the future of every large enterprise seeking to secure the most dependable employees and to commend itself to the public as the possessor of an adequate labor policy. In this connection it is worthy of note that in the so-called mass-production industries, where rapid advances in machinery and plant engineering frequently turn men out of work, lay-offs are of relatively short duration, because those advances usually enable the management to reduce costs, increase sales, and expand their markets.
Even if all the large-scale enterprises did something of this constructive nature, and many associations of smaller concerns followed suit, there would still remain a body of foot-loose labor which is sometimes urgently needed and sometimes needed not at all. This part of the labor reserve has been immensely useful in building and feeding America; but the tendency of the times is toward reducing the need for this type of man. For instance, an army of casuals used to follow the wheat harvest from Texas to Manitoba. Now the numbers are smaller because more of the harvest work is done by machinery and the population of the wheat belt is becoming more dense. Fruit picking is not as easily mechanized, but with the growth of population the work tends to be done more and more by near-by workers rather than by migratory workers covering a wide range. With the increasing value and intricacy of machinery on construction jobs, contractors tend to take more and more trained men with them to the operation. So the problem presented by the casuals seems to be a disappearing one, and unlikely, of itself, to force legislation for unemployment insurance.
The occupation which has lost the most workers in the past twenty years is agriculture, in which improved methods and machinery have increased the productivity of man power in goods whose market is relatively inelastic compared to the market for automobiles, radios, dynamos, and goods on which changes of style can be rung indefinitely. These workers have been absorbed largely by industry and the servicing of industrial products; but industry is more vulnerable in crises than is agriculture. The standard of living may fall on a farm when there are more mouths to feed; but, barring some calamity of nature, there are always food and shelter. The farmer welcomes home the prodigal son when factory employment fades, and tries to get what work he can out of the fellow in payment for board and lodging. Agriculture is like a sponge; it loses workers under pressure of efficiency and the lure of the city, but it draws them in again, temporarily, when the town cannot provide a living for all its inhabitants. But the unemployment created by changes in farm economy causes little stir because it is ever with us, and because the worker ousted from a rural job usually drifts to town.
Neither casual laborers of the sort who float from state to state nor agricultural laborers are likely to be relieved of insecurity by unemployment insurance legislation. The indications are that the nation will be more chary henceforth in accepting constitutional amendments than it was in the period from 1910 to 1920; and without a constitutional amendment the whole subject remains one for the several states instead of the Union. Secondly, the question is likely to become pressing only in the more highly industrialized states. And, thirdly, in kindred affairs, such as employee compensation, it is noteworthy that many states exempt farmers from the regulations applying to other employers, and also that each state is slow to burden a citizen or a domestic corporation with the protection of citizens of other states temporarily at work within its borders. Finally, the responsible discussion of unemployment insurance thus far, even in New York, where it has reached almost the proportions of a political issue through the championship of Governor Roosevelt, concerns itself with contributing rather than compulsory plans, and neither farm laborers nor casuals are likely to contribute to a large degree. Next steps, and measures in the near future, therefore, can hardly include them to any determining extent.
Nearly ten years ago I wrote in The Iron Man in Industry an analysis of the large corporation as a working clan, which was developing crossresponsibilities almost feudal in their cohesion. The interval since then has witnessed almost uninterrupted progress in that direction. There has been an increase in stock holdings by employees, in company unions and employee consultation programmes, in profit sharing by bonus and otherwise. Likewise there have been decreases in labor turnover, due to a more rigid selection of employees, a greater emphasis upon dependability, and more severe industrial discipline. The more alert industrial managers now think of themselves as facing a three-way responsibility — to capital, to labor, to the market. Workingmen see, as never before in America, that the future belongs to the great industrial units, and the easiest way for a little fellow to become a big fellow is to ‘get set’ early with a large corporation and stick with it. This follows naturally from the disappearance of the frontier and the vanishing of free, arable land. Theoretically, the change should have strengthened organized labor; actually it has aided the large employers, because their policies, on the whole, have been more effective than those of the unions.
They build, you see, upon one of the fundamental social instincts — group pride. I can remember the day when newspaper men were warned that workers in our largest plant resented being described as ’a Buick man.’ That feeling may have been due to a dying flash of frontier influence; many of the workers had come freshly out of the North Woods and from the farms. In their smaller groups they stood forth as individuals, and what they did was probably not as important as what they were. But whatever the origin of the feeling, it has vanished, and the once suspect term is now flaunted as a banner. The connection it advertises makes its bearer a good risk for credit at the corner store, and probably uplifts his heart as well, for it stamps him as a member of a group which has survived in a stern battle for existence, of an organization which has grown while many of its competitors have dwindled and disappeared. But the change of attitude toward that description holds something more than the consciousness of success; it is the fruit, likewise, of sound judgment in the selection of employees, intelligent personnel service in domestic distress, a liberal policy as regards wages and sharing plans, and the cultivation of the group spirit in a wide variety of ways. That plant has held men for years who joined merely for a few weeks’ work, expecting to depart as soon as they had a stake to set up for themselves, but who have stayed on to find satisfactions far beyond anything they imagined could exist in the employee status.
It seems inevitable that a clan spirit so engendered will not be denied its logical fulfillment. The ancient clan took care of its willing and worthy members in sickness and health, in good times and bad, in strength and in the weakness of age. Industry in this engineering age sternly demands dependability from its workers, and in return it can hardly escape the duty of being dependable to its workers in return. In bringing himself to the point of unquestioning dependability, many an industrial worker unfits himself for another occupation. He becomes a specialist who requires a certain environment in which to function efficiently. He wears his shop as a turtle wears his shell. Even if a similar job offers in another shop, he shrinks from taking it because he would not feel at home there; he has become something more or less than a man — that is to say, a Buick man, or a Standard Oil man, or a Ford man, or a Steel man. It is almost as hard for him to switch shops as it would be to switch churches; perhaps more so. For such a man unemployment is especially painful and long; he has no heart to look elsewhere for work. The result is that insecurity of tenure is the chief of his fears. When this fear becomes realized in unemployment, men loyal at all other times will begin to mutter against their employers, against the state, and against the institution of private property which the state protects and perpetuates.
The temptation to make life secure is always strong among those who manage states, because the state’s fundamental reason for being is to provide security. At the first threat of insecurity a state shivers and piles up armaments. At bottom the state’s purpose is to maintain the status quo as nearly as it can in a world of eternal flux. However, it makes concessions to its people when it must, and statesmen find it peculiarly easy to fall in line with those movements which promise to still popular unrest by making life secure. It is significant that two monarchies, Great Britain and Germany, instituted unemployment insurance, and their Majesties gained strength with the people thereby. In both cases the government’s desire for security coincided with a similar desire among the folk at the bottom of the industrial ladder. A similar coincidence of desires may arise here in the near future, and then we may expect to hear the proponents of unemployment insurance derided as cheap politicians and demagogues. They may be shallow persons, in all truth, and yet have by the tail a great truth. The state has a primary stake in having life under it secure and stable for the common man.
However, the state is by no means trusted in all things. We Americans do not trust it in business or religion, or, utterly, in education. Keeping life free for the uncommon man to grow greatly is at least as important as keeping life safe for the common man to do steadfastly. In the America of the past we have perhaps overdone the former; in the America of the future we may easily overdo the latter. A reasonable compromise for the present would lie in corporations providing unemployment insurance in their own several ways, with the state well out of it.
By so doing we can ameliorate some of the suffering which is inevitable under the competitive system, garner more of the delights of leisure, and yet preserve a reasonable field for those driving incentives which flow naturally from insecurity and the desire to win a firmer footing in life.
A civilized people, theoretically in control of its own destiny, scarcely can seek through territorial expansion those reliefs from unemployment which the savage began instinctively — war and conquest. Too many inhibitions have come with evolution. Instead, we moderns must find within our borders and by our wits the solutions for the ills which beset us. Fortunate shall we be among peoples if these solutions do not develop, through undreamed-of complications, ills as serious as those we seek to cure.