Thanksgiving Day found me doing what I have done on many a Thanksgiving, working. As a doctor, I am one of millions of Americans who work in a field in which service must be provided 24 hours a day, 365 days (366 on leap years) each year. I have found that there is a great camaraderie among the people who work on national holidays, and the mood at work is usually happy and uplifting. There is a famous quote: “You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.” When people work, they give. They are giving their most precious resource, their time. This can never be gotten back and is limited. Through work, most people find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Today, the greatest challenge facing Oregon, and the entire western world, is the lack of meaningful work for so many citizens. I know that many will find this hard to believe, as we have just been told that our unemployment rate has fallen to 4.6%, and many economists believe that we have a full employment economy. However, a closer look at the data shows a very different picture.
Our labor participation rate, the percentage of individuals of working age who are working, stands at a near historic low of 62.7%. This means that while 145 million Americans are working, 95 million Americans of working age, including nearly 1 million Oregonians of working age, are not employed. While some are retired, are disabled, or are students, many millions are not. Their lives would be greatly improved if they had a job. People without meaningful work are less healthy, and suffer from higher rates of depression and addictive behaviors. Many experience extreme poverty. People need a job for their own good, and for the good of society.
What must be done? Education and training, especially technical education, must be greatly improved. Business must be listened to. Government should become an aid, not a hindrance, to business expansion and job creation. The safety net must be changed so that, for the able-bodied, work is always rewarded far more than public assistance. Finally, the government should employ individuals who are on public assistance as a last resort, if a private sector job is unavailable.
We have done great harm to many citizens in our culture, by creating the myth that idleness and leisure is the pathway to happiness and a meaningful life. For most people, work and purpose, and the ability to contribute, creates a life of satisfaction, and a life worth living. Government, and government institutions, must strive to create a trained and educated workforce, and an economy that creates an abundance of good jobs. We must focus on the dignity of work for all of our citizens.