Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 13, 2000
Social mobility rises and then declines
They say societies are judged by the way they treat their weakest members. It is a social contract, a covenant if you will, to protect the common good.
A few years ago, Margaret Thatcher announced that there is no such thing as a society, only a collection of individuals, supposedly in a Darwinian struggle for space, food, shelter, jobs, power, wealth and an opportunity to pass on their genes.
Contempt for the masses is nothing new of course, but it was presumed that our societies had matured to take into consideration the needs and aspirations of those at the lowest rung of the social ladder. Most of the advances in that direction were made in the last hundred years.
Social mobility was a byproduct of geographic mobility. Universal education helped to further level the playing field. As the industrial revolution swept across Europe, people were needed to fill junior management and bureaucratic positions.
A middle class of clerks, teachers, merchants and tradespeople served as a safe buffer zone between the aristocracy or nouveau riche and the still largely unlettered working class. Peasants were uprooted from the rural commons to work in the mines and factories and fight the wars.
This labour class began to unite and demand better working conditions and improved wages. A benign capitalism thought this was a fair trade-off for increased production.
Lunch breaks, coffee breaks and holidays were instituted, shop stewards were appointed and safety in the workplace became law. The higher cost of production was offset by improved methods of mass production.
Henry Ford believed that workers were potential customers and that establishing a decent wage was good business practice.
But business is in the business of business and the bottom line is profit. Investors aim for the highest return.
High-paid employment is a liability. Women and children, it was discovered, will work for less, especially if they happen to live in the underdeveloped world.
Third World countries vied with each other for capital investment. They bent over backwards to outlaw unions and turned a blind eye to environmental degradation.
The old union cry of "workers unite" fell on deaf ears as the poor were sucked into a spiraling race to the bottom. Food banks sprang up like mushrooms in a horse pasture as First World labour was unable to compete with sweatshop conditions. Middle management and the middle class began to feel the pinch.
After a century of carefully building a sense of pride in citizenship, a measure of self-respect among employees and job stability to support a family, the evolution towards the common good was replaced with the "common sense" revolution of the bottom line.
The value of a citizen was now measured by his ability to consume. The government started job creation schemes and make-work projects. Employers were given grants and hired part-time staff on contract only, without benefits.
Entrepreneurs moved from manufacturing to the service industries. Unemployed professionals scratched out an existence as telephone solicitors, taxi drivers or waitresses.
Then the discovery was made that people were not really needed any longer for either production or consumption in order to make a profit. One could simply make money from money through speculation on its future value.
There is something parasitical about an economy which subverts and tramples on a social covenant we once defended as our sacred heritage.
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