Monday, August 26, 2013

Unemployment is Interdisciplinary

It occurs to me that my focus on unemployment today may appear as somewhat of an odd thing! After all, the beginning of new semesters has always been about starting fresh, and the hopes that go with such thoughts. In the context of making decisions about the future, and commitments to match, wouldn't it be great if students didn't have to think about the possibility of unemployment or - at the very least, if only there were classes someone could take on the subject itself! Especially when knowing the "right" courses to take to "avoid" it are not so simple as it may seem. Multiple rationale exist for what appears as a surface phenomenon. When one hears about high skilled jobs going unfilled, for instance: how easy is it for those with the "right" skills to be where they need to be, and when?

The ramifications of unemployment hit home for people from all walks of life in ways they may scarcely recognize. Indeed, making the greater effort for societal inclusion early on could be the best preventative measure of all. But when a nation chooses not to address the causes of unemployment head on, it's more difficult to undo the damage afterward. As for students, the possibility of unemployment remains as something that might have to be confronted after numerous parties have been thrown, notes and textbooks have been pored over, and tests have been taken. Isn't unemployment (or underemployment) just the back door of a house that one might see when the front door could not be taken?

Today, the possibility of unemployment is everywhere and always the front door: the place where dots connect, disciplines struggle to meet, and the forgotten crossroads where the underlying elements of a societal language emerge. Yes we have interdisciplinary studies and calls for more interdisciplinary skills in the workplace (something institutions tend to be a bit short on) but this isn't quite the same. Few institutions or groups look at unemployment in the same way, let alone have any strategy for dealing with its ramifications. From a big picture perspective, unemployment is a matter of societal imbalance. More importantly, it is a huge rip in the fabric of aggregate wealth that nations rely upon.

Already, the problems of unemployment in the 21st century are starting to change the way we think about education, and not in a good way. Supposedly - for instance - one isn't really "thinking straight" if they get an English degree. Luckily, this was not so true for a good part of the 20th century. After all, my father is living proof that one can be quite pragmatic by inclination, and yet still have a college degree in English to their credit. Even so, in the South, it has been true for a long time that anyone with "too many books" in their homes (particularly when they run well into the thousands) doesn't quite make sense to the population as a whole.

While the reader might wince at this reality, there is a good reason for it. Even though credentials matter, so too do personalities for the jobs that (once) lasted a lifetime, and anyone who stuttered in high school (like my Dad) or was shy, had a slight disadvantage coming out the gate. Being popular in the South, among other things, still means not spending an excessive amount of  time with books. Nevertheless, in demographic terms, Dad was fortunate indeed. There were lots of reasons he didn't have to worry at a young age about a good job that not only paid the bills, but also made it much easier to save money as well. Today that's not quite so easy. Saying it's not really so is not just beside the point, but also delays finding solutions.

What we need to do is quit pointing fingers at one another, and get to work on putting the pieces together, as to how people have gotten themselves into this predicament. Numerous factors contribute to unemployment and they all have their place in active consideration. Non solutions are when society tries to find ways to simply pay the people who aren't employed, which over time just makes economic systems even more unbalanced than ever.

Consider what happens today in community planning which mostly tries to focus on "green" this or that, or getting the "right" employers or the appropriate "mixed use" area that supposedly unleashes economic potential on its own. There is no economic potential to be unleashed until the reality of supply and demand in people based terms is addressed for the bulk of a population - and not just the ones with the pocketbook of the moment. In other words, the effort to address root issues of  unemployment and its associated living struggles, needs to be front and center of any community plan.

Such efforts to address unemployment can begin informally as well. That would allow people to move beyond present day constraints of getting the right information and knowledge to the places where it is needed most. For instance, countless papers are presented in higher education which don't necessarily have ways of matching up to other complementary work. People can be readily brought into informal processes who are not constrained by the missions in their formal job or career roles. Complementary research can be planned at the outset in many instances.

While there are numerous practical aspects of such efforts, the study of unemployment is especially about digging deeper to find out what people really want to do and how they want to go about it. Communities can start by forming virtual universities, which would include locals coming together to compare aspects of online discussions that particularly motivate them for local, national and international action. Plus, locals can work together to encourage dialogue that may be somewhat constrained online as well, in that the local focus allows more definite context in some circumstance.

We don't really know what kinds of product people actually want, in that institutions have had many limitations in the kinds of product they are capable of presenting to the public in recent decades. That alone is a big reason why unemployment is such a problem now. The important thing is to explore the kinds of product, services and experiences people have either come to expect or particularly need, which are not being met in present day institutional circumstance.

Only by discovering what some of these thought processes actually consist of, can the issue of unemployment be addressed in ways that suggest future solutions. To be sure, there are the immediate aspects of zoning and regulations which stop business formations, job potential and living solutions right now: all of which need to be addressed simultaneously. However there is no reason why short, medium and long range goals cannot be discussed as multi-setting considerations and active components with intersecting dynamics. Until now, unemployment issues have primarily been the province of monetary policy, but the reality is that unemployment needs to be everyone's concern, before greater expectations for the new century can truly materialize.

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