Yet all too often, unemployment concerns are confused with whether people actually want to work, or whether they should even need to work. Where to begin? As Isabel Sawhill notes:
The debate centers around why we think people are jobless. Unless we can agree on the diagnosis, we will not be able to fashion an appropriate policy response.Economic historians and others have pointed out over the centuries, that people often end up jobless due to social design. This practice persists today, yet is scarcely clarified in present day arguments. Fortunately, Adam Smith offers plenty of explanation in "The Wealth of Nations", despite the fact it is mostly the monopoly aspect of this reality which is stressed by progressives and conservatives alike.
As a result, supply side factors which purposely limit employment, are chalked up to excessive regulation. Worse, regulations are so diverse and complex, that the public can scarcely determine cause and effect for the circumstance of low labor force participation. The fact that U.S. unemployment is so well concealed - under statistics that seemingly insist otherwise - contributes to the vague and ill conceived nature of today's growing populism.
Looking back on what has already occurred, of course it's possible to put a positive spin on meritocratic workplace exclusion. By limiting workplace design to those society perceives as most skilled (judgmental or not), more resources were freed up, so those with high incomes could put the resulting capital to good use. Admittedly, this approach led to the solid and often beautiful housing of medieval cities for instance - some of which still stands. Just the same, the majority of housing today is not built with the kind of craftsmanship, that warrants taking away the choice of mass produced building components.
Hence one might insist that beautiful environments result from the purposeful limiting of labor stock. Intentional limits for employment are a form of equilibrium shifting, which sometimes works reasonably well, so long as economies maintain a strong growth trajectory. However - should stagnation set in - those cultural patterns can start to break down. Many end up waiting too long to gain economic assimilation, such as the apprentices in Adam Smith's time. Consumption smoothing would mean economic access, for individuals and society as a whole. The option of economic time value as a steady state, could ensure that an ever growing percentage of the population is not left behind.
Indeed, more than consumption smoothing is at stake. The human inclination to take part in productive activity is strong from a young age, yet is is frequently lost. Young students have been expected to concentrate on their own learning, instead of discovering how to purposely interact with others while they are still inclined to do so. Adam Smith explains how apprentices were not paid for the years they were expected to learn their trades - a practice which is unfortunately echoed by long years of education today. Here's Smith:
The property in which every man has in his own labor, as it is the foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper, without injury to his neighbor, is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty, both of the workman and those who might be disposed to employ him. As it hinders him from working at what he thinks proper, so it hinders others from employing who they think proper. To judge whether he is fit to be employed, may surely be trusted to the discretion of the employers, whose interest it so much concerns. The affected anxiety of the lawgiver, lest they should employ an improper person, is evidently as impertinent as it is oppressive...
The institution of long apprenticeships has no tendency to form young people to industry. A journeyman who works by the piece is likely to be industrious, because he derives a benefit from every exertion of his industry. An apprentice is likely to be idle, and almost always is so, because he has no immediate interest to be otherwise...A young man naturally conceives an aversion to labor, when for a long time he receives no benefit from it.Lest anyone complain that the life of a student is not labor, this may appear so in comparison to the hard labor of the past. The societal commitment of schooling is not the privilege to the student that many imagine! Hard labor versus classroom is not the point of reference for many students, who mostly see a long road ahead with a very uncertain payoff for one's efforts in the classroom - especially during periods of low economic growth.
Those familiar with my work, know that in knowledge use systems, individuals of all ages who take part in the system would provide mutual employment for one another, determined by individual preferences at various points in a given year. The resulting work patterns would also reflect today's time based services patterns, albeit with internal coordination at local levels. Each young student would become a knowledge entrepreneur, alongside more routine responsibilities. The elderly would gain the ability to return to knowledge based endeavor, when it becomes more difficult to perform other forms of work. The elderly would also be able to bring young people together, who they feel would benefit from mutual learning efforts with one another.
Smith spoke of the "affected anxiety of the lawgiver", as a way to expose the fallacy of government "protection" of the public in particular. Once, home construction may have required the largest income possible, hence teaching may have needed to be limited to the "best and the brightest". But there is no excuse now to exclude those who seek to work, given the capacity of technology to generate today's environments with a mere fraction of the time and resources that were once required. Fortunately, today's technology gives people the chance to create wealth along more horizontal dimensions than in the past.