Tuesday, July 03, 2012

working class blues

Job insecurity is nothing new for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Since the '70s and '80s, a shifting labor market and anti-worker policies have been fraying the ties between employers and employees, fueling the perception that a job is a temporary affair. Globalization, outsourcing, contracting, downsizing, and recession have conspired to make confidence in a stable, long-term job a privilege that few can enjoy. But the recession has raised the numbers experiencing persistent job insecurity through the roof. Workers are feeling increasingly stressed, often trapped in low-wage and temporary employment with few benefits.

Capitalism wasn’t supposed to be like this. Hard work and endeavor was supposed to make us safe from the vagaries of arbitrary events that harassed our ancestors. But somehow we’ve ended up more worried than ever. American Psychological Association paints a picture of workers on the verge of a nervous breakdown:
    Sixty-two percent say work has a significant impact on their stress levels.
    Almost 50 percent indicate their stress levels have increased between 2007 and 2008.
    Forty-five percent of workers say job insecurity has a significant impact on stress levels.

Anxiety disorders now plague 18 percent of the U.S. adult population –- 40 million people. The drug alprazolam — familiar by its brand name, Xanax — was prescribed 46.3 million times in 2010, making it that year’s bestselling psychiatric drug. Prozac, the happiness-and-optimism pill, has been pushed aside by a medication meant to just help you get through the day.

Humans are pretty good at coping with bursts of pressure, but chronic uncertainty is different. Anticipating a major stressful event can be worse than the actual occurrence itself, research shows. We’re paralyzed by powerlessness and to compensate we pile on more work than we can handle. We don’t take sick days when we need them. We start fueling up on coffee and cigarettes and alcohol, and dropping the things that are good for us, like leisure activities and trips to the gym. Under chronic stress, our immune systems start to buckle from “over-responsivity.” The worst effects of pervasive job insecurity—on health, family, society—take time to incubate. Some of the signs are just now becoming visible. If this constant assault on our well-being goes on much longer, its effects may linger for decades.

Authors of a recent study in Michigan found that insecure workers were significantly more likely to meet criteria for major or minor depression and to report a recent anxiety attack, even after taking into consideration factors like race, education, poorer prior health, and higher likelihood of recent unemployment. Conclusion: Many of those who have managed to hang onto their jobs during the Great Recession are getting mentally and physically wrecked – often more so than those who have lost their jobs. The study found that chronic job insecurity was a stronger predictor of poor health than either smoking or hypertension. Months, even years, are shaved off of life expectancy. There’s no question that job insecurity is eroding our quality of life. And its prolonged effects can lead to coronary heart disease and even cancer.

Suicide rates are known to increase during economic downturns, and middle-age workers are especially vulnerable. Last year, suicide rates were at an all-time high in Connecticut, fueled by a sharp increase in rates among middle-age men. Middle-aged workers may still have plenty to offer, but employers often consider them used goods. In an economy with sky-high youth joblessness, employers know that there are young, inexperienced people that can be paid little and exploited at will. The jobs of older workers may be “restructured,” the pace sped up, the pay reduced.

When you don’t know whether your job will be around next year, or even next week, how do you plan for the future? What happens to dreams like buying a home? Going to university? Retirement? In the face of job insecurity, thoughts of any of these things bring instant panic instead of hopeful planning. Unlike losing a job, the fear of losing the job you have is not a discrete, socially visible event. Your course of action isn’t clear because you don’t know whether or how the job loss will occur. Things like unemployment insurance weren’t meant for your situation. There’s no intervention mechanism. You may become paranoid at work – and for good reason. Some managers have been known to try to get employees to quit so that they don’t have to pay for unemployment insurance.

The apologists for capitalism tell us that employers need maximum flexibility to hire and fire so that wealth can be created for all but for many of us premature death is often our only reward.

Adapted from here

Worth a look at is the blog on individual deaths related to welfare reform 

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