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Letter From Elsewhere: McJobs Won’t Buy McKids

Letter From Elsewhere

McJobs Won’t Buy Even McKids

We’re supposed to be cheering. The official unemployment rate is now 5.2%, the lowest quarterly rate since March 1988. Job numbers increased by 0.9% this quarter, the strongest growth in five years. That’s good, isn’t it?

Not quite as good as it looks, unfortunately. Of the 16,000 jobs created this quarter, 14,000 were part-time. That means they could be as substantial as 29 hours a week, or as insignificant as 1 hour a week. They can’t be all that great, because a total of 106,200 people – the same as last quarter – were classed as underemployed, wanting more hours of paid work than they were getting.

I haven’t done the research, you understand, but there seem to be an awful lot of signs out there that the kinds of jobs my generation took for granted thirty years ago –the kinds of jobs that paid enough and lasted long enough to sustain two kids and a mortgage – are getting more elusive by the day.

(Meanwhile, in a slew of export zones on the other side of the world, young women toil in Dickensian conditions for well under a dollar an hour, making the mundane objects through which the magic of the global brands ultimately reaches down to mere mortals on earth…but that’s another story.)

A friend told me recently that at a family gathering, where the younger set ranged from early 20s to mid 30s, she noticed that not one of them had bought a house or got married, let alone had any kids. One or two had tried to buy a very modest house, instead of paying rent. But their “portfolios” of pieced-together jobs just didn’t add up to anything that would convince a bank they were creditworthy. Yet they were all from middle and upper middle class families. Most of them had at least one degree under their belts.

The lovely Naomi Klein dissects the same phenomenon in No Logo. She points out that more and more people are starting to realise their part-time shifts in Borders and Starbucks and The Gap are not “temporary” jobs on the way to higher things – these are the only jobs they are ever likely to have in the new world order of global brands.

So it’s just plain common sense to put off having kids and “settling down”. A relatively small group are working too hard to find the time. A much bigger group are earning just enough to keep themselves afloat.

I’m not advocating marriage at 19 and first kid at 20, the way it was done in my day. Heaven forbid. But even the powers that be are starting to get just a tad worried about all this delay, and the way it’s affecting population ageing.

This week a group of US doctors put out a series of posters warning women about things that could make it hard to get pregnant. One of them was age. Fertility drops sharply after 35, and even more sharply after 40.

I hate to state the obvious, but if you want people to have kids before they’re almost past it, and do a good job of rearing them, you need to make a few changes. They can’t raise a family on a clutch of insecure, part-time bits and bobs of jobs. And they find it hard to manage if they’re both working 60 hours a week. Paid parental leave of at least three months (anything less is virtually useless) would certainly help, but it’s no substitute for a feasible family income, earned in a sensible number of hours, and backed up by reliable health care and education.

Treasury’s glib answers – more upskilling, moving to where the jobs are supposed to be – won’t do the trick. What’s the use of either, if the jobs still don’t measure up? And it always seems to escape their notice that we do need people in socalled “unskilled” jobs.

Even computer whiz kids and the makers of Frankenfoods need sewage workers and hospital cleaners. But perhaps Treasury is relying on a few more handy boatloads of desperate refugees to do all those boring, low-paid jobs we, and they, depend on.

Or maybe they expect we’ll simply end up importing the kids themselves, fully assembled offshore, far more cheaply than they can be made here.


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