The New Standard of Living: Staying Alive

We are all guided by three principles of survival: love, opportunity, and fear.

The numbers seem startling: 58,000 new unemployment claims last week and 533,000 jobs lost last month.  We are standing in the midst of a 6.7% unemployment rate.  And, of course, millions of workers related to the auto industry face layoffs.  The result of this turbulence in the job market has lead to the distribution of billions of dollars in unemployment insurance, causing the call for additional government funding at both the state and federal levels.        

But I get confused by another set of numbers: Careerbuilder offers over 648,000 job postings this month.  Yahoo's Hotjobs lists over 197,000.  And Craigslist posts over two million new jobs every month.

In fact, everywhere I go around town seems to be hiring.  I go out to eat and there are applications by the door.  I do a little shopping and there's a "Now Hiring" sign in the window.  I open the newspaper and there are a dozen pages of want ads.

I don't get it.  What about the Depression-era comparisons?  I thought we were in an "economic crisis" and American businesses were suffering.  How can anyone afford to be hiring right now?

Then I came across a few terms that enlightened me.  I learned of "frictional unemployment," which refers to the time period where people are transitioning between jobs, causing "friction" because they are unsure about which jobs to take.  I read of "structural unemployment," which refers to the changing of the market and its effect on worker qualifications. I also discovered how "frictional" and "structural" unemployment can result in "inferior employment."  This occurs when a highly qualified job seeker chooses, out of necessity, to take a position well below his or her previous pay grade or professional level.

And then I realized something.  Americans have lost our concept of survival.  We only know acceptable standards of living.

One of the most entertaining shows on television these days is the Discovery Channel's Man vs. Wild.  The host, Bear Grylls, battles nature's elements each week in the world's harshest environments and is forced to survive solely on his intelligence and courage.  He sleeps in caves and trees, battles ice and heat, builds rafts and tools, and eats absolutely anything he can get his hands on.  He survives.  He forgets about standards of living. 

And even though he lives in the cruelest climates and faces frightening animals, he comes to his decisions in the same manner that we do.  He relies on love, opportunity, and fear.

He chooses food in one of three ways: Grylls will climb a 60-foot tree in the jungle to enjoy a sweet treat.  He will take advantage of a busy stream by spearing a salmon for a hearty meal.  Or he will choke down the creepiest crawler imaginable because he's afraid he won't have another chance for nourishment. 

He uses three methods of motivation.  He will seek things he likes, things he needs, and things he just has to put up with.  Just like all of us -- if we can forget about standards of living.

Some of us are choosing not to participate in the panic of our current economy.  Though it may not always feel like a gentle, beach breeze, we keep plugging along, confident that American resilience and defiant independence will carry us through any climate thrown at us.  But Mr. Obama and his fellow Dems would like us to believe that the current job market is a barren desert or frozen wasteland, from which there is no escape except by the guiding hand of government.

In my home state of Arizona, one can "earn" up to $240 per week while unemployed.  In New York, a recipient can get up to $405 per week, and in California, the rate can be as high as $450 per week.  Now let's put that into a practical comparison.  Let's say the only available job in town is a part-time offer of $10 per hour for 20 hours per week.  One could be contributing a valuable service, such as tutoring at a school, cooking in a restaurant, or handling luggage at the airport.  Yet, at $200 a week, before taxes, why would anyone take such a job when he or she could earn as much as twice that amount sitting at home in pajamas?

Where's the motivation to work, to contribute, to move up?

Last year, I worked three jobs simultaneously.  One job I did because I loved it, despite its lack of salary.  Another also offered low pay, but it was an opportunity to advance my career.  I took the third job and its "inferior employment" because of the fear of bills.  Three motivators.  And though it was a long year with many 18-hour workdays, it wasn't so bad.  I helped a lot of people through my work.  I paid all my bills on time.  And I survived. 

Last week, Mr. Obama revealed his plan to create 2.5 million jobs by 2011.  Sounds great.  But how can we be sure people will actually want to do those jobs?  Especially when we already have so many that need to be filled. 

Sometimes, we have to take jobs out of fear, because paying our mortgages, feeding our children, and preparing for medical costs have prices that need to be paid.  Sometimes, we don't like it, and our comfortable standard of living may suffer for a while.  But sometimes, we need to close our eyes, grit our teeth, swallow hard, and get to work.