Things haven’t changed

Well, work itself has. For several thousand years, work was really work, and everybody who was anybody sneered at it. A huge population of slaves, serfs and peasants used their muscles in grimy toil to support a tiny aristocracy of warriors, lords, and priests who devoted their lives to art, religion, small mercies to the poor, and killing each other.

This system was not particularly efficient. The game for a slave, who has no opportunity for pay or advancement, might be to do as little as possible. The same could be said of the minimum-wage “working poor” of today.

It was technology that began providing opportunities for a new middle class of entrepreneurs, and the Protestant Reformation that changed Western attitudes toward work. The leading philosopher was a French clergyman named John Calvin, one of those dead white guys you’ve scarcely heard of whose thinking nonetheless rules your life.

Calvin made work not just cool but obligatory. He believed certain people were predestined to go to heaven and others to be damned, and the only way to tell the Elect was to see who was working hard and had money, wealth itself being a sign of divine grace. He not only turned Catholic teaching about the perils of riches on its head, he contended that losers should blame themselves, not the system.

Calvinism helped turn us into a nation of workaholics and, as a byproduct, a superpower. Ben Franklin encoded the Protestant work ethic in his homilies, 19th-century textbooks drummed home the evils of idleness, Horatio Alger penned best-sellers about boys working from the bottom to the top, and industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford started a drumbeat of self-improvement sermons that go on today.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution emptied farmlands for the factory. Then robots began emptying the factory for today’s post-Industrial-whatever. The new wild card in this stacked deck is the rise of well-educated but cheap foreign labor that has sucked 2 million manufacturing jobs and 400,000 service jobs overseas the past two decades, even while America has, in turn, recruited best-and-brightest immigrants.

You don’t just compete with your desk mate anymore, you compete with 6.3 billion global neighbors who would love to take your job. Already, 245,000 people in India are employed to answer, in heavily accented English, our dingbat questions about computer glitches and telephone calling plans.

That’s why business, which has been enjoying a labor surplus for 30 years, isn’t sweating baby-boomer retirements. It’ll just hire overseas.

Each generation has tried to make sense of tumultuous change. The “Greatest Generation” of the Depression and World War II achieved, from 1947 to 1973, the longest-lasting boom in the nation’s history, the greatest and most equitable growth of income, and a simple attitude about jobs: They were precious. If you got one, you held onto it. Work’s “meaning” was being able to buy a house and car. And work was hard. My father and his partner died prematurely, in part due to chemical exposure from their painting business. An uncle lost much of his hearing at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard. C’est la vie, in those days.

For my generation of baby boomers, a job seemed a given, and the question was which job to reform the world. Work was not just about money but meaning.

But an economy flattened by Vietnam and the Cold War soon produced cynicism and reversal. There was a surplus of labor not just from the boomer bulge but from the entry of women into the workforce. The year I graduated from college, 1973, was the last in which personal income significantly rose for ordinary workers. Ever since, earnings for the rank and file (adjusted for inflation) have been essentially flat.

My children’s generation, the X’s and Y’s, came into the most confused economy of all. There is more opportunity as the Information Age has forged a growing “creative class.” But there is none of the security and predictability their grandparents knew: not of job (their company is likely to be bought out or become obsolete), not of workplace (it may move), not of retirement. Pay is often low or erratic, yet friends might become dot-com millionaires. Work isn’t logical anymore, and so this generation’s interest is in labor as a means to a lifestyle. Their loyalty is not to an employer but to the city where they want to live.

We Americans also defer life. Older generations deferred lengthy leisure and travel until retirement. Younger generations defer marriage, kids and home-buying to the late 30s or beyond, simply to compete.

It’s Calvin again. His other philosophic trick is that while you can have wealth, you’re not supposed to enjoy it. You can earn, but only if you save. You can go to a convention, but only if you promise to sit in a boring seminar and have a bad time.

ANOTHER POINT is that while many of you enjoy the highest standard of living in human history and will live in bigger houses, take better vacations and drive flashier cars than your parents, you nonetheless are well and truly screwed.

From 1947 to 1973, real income, adjusted for inflation, rose about 75 percent and went up almost equally for the poor, middle class and rich. Since then, the growth of wealth has continued, but real hourly wages have declined and middle-class income is virtually static (rising at best half a percent a year, adjusted for inflation). Only pay for the upper classes has soared.

The stall in pay for most people is odd since worker productivity — or the amount of goods and services we each produce, on average — has risen 61 percent since 1980. The benefit should have followed, right? If we make more, don’t we get more?

Nope. Instead, average CEO pay in the same period rose 480 percent, corporate profits rose 145 percent, and income for the top 1 percent of Americans climbed 157 percent, all adjusted for inflation. America now has 2.2 million millionaires, and CEO pay that was 44 times that of an average worker in 1980 has rocketed to 301 times in 2004.

We live in a winner-take-all society where the average author earns below the poverty line but Harry Potter’s J.K. Rowling becomes a billionaire, or where the median Mariner salary is $2.66 million and Class A minor leaguers earn as little as $600 a month.

Adding to the confusion is a yo-yoing tax system. The top rate for the progressive income tax went from 7 percent in 1900 to 90 percent under Eisenhower, fell to 70 percent under Kennedy, 28 percent under Reagan, back up to 31 percent under Bush Senior, 39.6 percent under Clinton, and a projected decline back to 33 percent under Bush II. Meanwhile, the maximum Social Security tax for employer-and-employee combined has risen from $60 in 1949 to $9,424 today — for a system some pundits claim remains insolvent.

Incidentally, studies have shown that not only do whites, Asians and men earn more, but so do taller people. Ugly people earn less.