In times of economic upheaval, the subject of underemployment is often raised. In traditional economic theory, underemployment means one of three things: doing work at less than your skill level, working fewer hours than you want to (part time work), or over-manning (where you have a job, but there is really not much for you to do). I would add to that a new definition: doing the wrong job (where “wrong” can be defined in many ways).
The essence of underemployment, to me, is wasting your life.
To appreciate the scale of the problem, it is reported that there are 20 million underemployed people in the US today, 7 million in the UK (these two figures are probably underestimates) and an incalculable number of underemployed in the third world (which is how wages are kept so low in China, etc.). That’s a lot of people wasting their lives.
If you have ever been underemployed you will know how it feels. It feels terrible. It’s debilitating, soul-destroying, health-destroying, stressful and miserable. You experience a sense of hopelessness and of being trapped. It feels just like grief as you watch your time on earth trickle pointlessly away.
Self-evidently this is bad; very bad. It’s a wanton waste of human potential, it degrades the mental health of the population and it is simply an economic waste, because all of those people could be and want to be doing more and better.
What’s the cause of all this waste? Economists will tell you it’s the knock on effect of unemployment. Simply put, it is the failure of the economy to place the value exchange tokens that we call money at the places in the economy where greatest value can be created. As a consequence of that misallocation, the value is never created.
Why do people accept underemployment? They accept it because they fear the alternative (unemployment), but lack the imagination (as a population) to break out of their slavish devotion to the existing economic and monetary system. The status quo does them no good, but they cannot imagine an alternative and even if they could and it existed (it does), they don’t have the collective courage to grasp it.
So that’s the traditional view.
I’m going to offer a new, simpler, broader definition of underemployment: it’s that condition which occurs when there is any material impediment to producing your finest and most fulfilling work consistently and having that work fairly valued and rewarded, in proportion to the quality of your work.
By this definition, most artists are underemployed. In fact, by that definition, most people are underemployed.
Here’s why I think this is a useful definition. It illuminates the “why” question. Why is there underemployment on such a massive scale? It comes down to values. It is because those with the most money consistently value things other than making sure everyone can produce their finest and most fulfilling work consistently. Those that don’t have as much money must value survival above the creation of beauty. They cannot sponsor a value system that ensures people produce their finest and most fulfilling work consistently. They don’t have the money.
The people that have the most money didn’t get it because their value system is the best or even right. In fact, the opposite may be true.
Those with the most money often value (with their actual cash and assets) negative things, such as selfishness, control, destruction, domination, competition, accumulation, extreme forms of ownership, greed, excess and idleness (easy money).
The alternative is a value system that values (with actual cash and assets) beauty, creativity, utility and equality. Where one value system is all about taking, the alternative is all about giving.
If the wealthy had a different value system, they wouldn’t be the wealthy, unless they were suddenly able to excel at producing real value, beauty and utility. If the revolution came, we’d all be producing our finest and most fulfilling work – the formerly rich included. We’d have more equality.
The route to convincing the people that currently hold the most value exchange tokens to value beauty, creativity, utility and equality instead is education and enlightenment. However, there is also a lot to be said for choosing systems that put the money where these positive values are. Systems of finance, markets, money and the economy can be deliberately designed to reinforce these positive values, rather than undermine them. They can also be designed to create penalties for adherence to negative values. The economic systems we operate and live within are a choice we collectively make, after all.
This smacks of Utilitarianism, but it’s slightly different because it is the idea that the MONETARY worth of an action should be determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure as summed among all sentient beings. Compare and contrast this with Capitalism, which believes that happiness and pleasure is the by-product of a vicious, winner-takes-all competition. Where is the proof? If it worked, nobody would be underemployed. Plainly, it has failed.
We can choose collaborative markets over competitive ones, stewardship over ownership, and wealth utilization over wealth accumulation. The complexion and operation of our economic system, monetary system, financial system, markets and society is a choice driven by our values. If we valued utility, equality and beauty above the others, our systems would be very different.
I believe underemployment can be partially solved on a personal basis, too, by artists being motivated to increase the quantity and quality of their personal output. Every little helps. But to solve this on a global basis, we would have to change how we all value human artefacts and how we exchange that value.
The price of not changing to a better set of values, just to permit a tiny minority of the wealthy to continue to enshrine their own negative values, is a tremendous and unconscionable waste of human potential. The best, finest and most fulfilling work simply doesn’t get done under the current systems and we are all the poorer for it.
If so many people are so clearly disenfranchised in this global economy, who is it that forces them to remain as participants in it, if their only available option is to suffer the agony of a wasted life? Start an alternative parallel economy (the technologies to do so exist) in which they can have a meaningful stake. Thereby, lead by artists, we can end underemployment. Forever.