Knitting Society Back Together Will Take Big Ideas

Nothing predicts social upheaval better than a society’s percentage of disaffected young men. Revolutions occur when that muscle and moxie is underutilized. Washington’s new leaders would be wise to get ahead of the wave that swept them into power.

Many, many Americans — mostly married men — are anxious, angry, bored, or some combination of the three. And for good reason. There’s not enough meaningful work available that they are willing or able to do. It’s going to get worse, and they know it.

The percentage of men in the American workforce hasn’t been this low since 1948. Once driving and delivery jobs are automated, half our working-age men could be without jobs. Many of those who have jobs are feeling overworked and under-appreciated.

Homicides are killing urban black men at increasing rates, but not as fast as rural whites are killing themselves. Suicide rates in those areas have roughly doubled in the past 15 years, according to a Washington Post analysis. Life is getting harder.

College debt is crushing a generation. That first mortgage is becoming out of reach. Getting ahead is a dream that many have given up on. Life has become a slow slog, relieved briefly by occasional Netflix binges.

This country chose “hope and change” in 2008, but neither arrived across broad swaths of America. Whether President Obama failed or was foiled is for many a distinction without a difference. Then came along a candidate of lowered expectations, offering only change. Voters went for it — hopefully.

Desperation is difficult to admit, so pollsters and pundits failed to measure it accurately. From the privacy of voting booths across the country, desperation sent its message loud and clear.

Half-measures are no longer worth our full effort. Incremental change was rejected. The status quo has lost its status. A space has been opened for a big conversation — as big as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or FDR’s New Deal. As candidate Trump once said, “the shackles have been taken off.”

Donald Trump didn’t promise change so much as embody it. His lack of specifics provides plenty of leeway ahead. He’s not a Republican. He’s not a conservative. He’s not a politician. He’s a deal-maker. So let’s make a deal — bigly.

The time has come to reimagine what people are good for and best at. Only people who are satisfied with their lives will support the institutions that support those lives.

Productivity is no longer a reliable ground for human esteem, at least not in the strictly calculable sense. John Henry lost to Watson. Computers and robots make things faster and better. Our stuff is proliferating, but our satisfaction is not.

Women express less angst than men right now, because many of their chosen jobs defy automation. Teachers and nurses are not paid handsomely, but the future remains bright for professions that require empathy and nurturing.

Is there room in those fields for men who are being displaced? Certainly there could be, especially if much of the wealth created by automated production could be invested in society’s greater good. Retraining millions of men for more secure work won’t be easy or fast, but we’re running out of alternatives.

If every American was given a universal basic income, work and wage could be separated from sustenance and survival. Our welfare system could be dismantled. Nobody resents another person’s basic needs being met. The rage bubbles up when somebody does less but gets more.

Will that anger dissipate when everyone has enough? It’s worth a try. Work would become a means of self-expression, born of ambition instead of fear. Most UBI plans envision humans no longer having to work, but that invites other dangers of isolation and lethargy, so here’s a twist.

Instead of sending monthly UBI payments to the individuals, we should allow non-profit organizations to administer the payments in return for volunteer work. Everybody cares about something. This would connect them with others who share those same concerns.

When people feel connected to their communities by effort and skill, we can begin building a better future for everyone. Work should satisfy the soul; not crush it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.