Spiked by the economy means making your own way in the world

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got…
— Theme to “Cheers”

Jobs are going away.

Oh, it’s a slow process. There are still lots of them around, and they’re not all going in a flash (unless you live in a small town with one major employer, where a plant closure can mean a sudden end to being paid to work).

But if you look around carefully, you’ll see that the past decade has been one where jobs have been eroding a bit at a time.

A place like Detroit, with its endless blocks of abandoned buildings, didn’t happen overnight. Neither did the bright, beautiful sights of downtown Vancouver (where the city had to pass a by-law forbidding further conversions of office towers into condominiums, that being the best use anyone could think of for the space as jobs disappeared in mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and moves out of the area).

While there have always been entrepreneurs in our midst, the reality of the world is that we’re going to have many more of us treading the self-employment path than ever wanted to.

Whether it’s by management buy-out, forced early retirement package, drummed-up “failure to perform” or a host of other triggers, many of us who never wanted to run our own show but preferred being in an organization will suddenly find ourselves on the outside looking in.

When half the working-age population of a major metropolitan region like Greater Toronto — some 2,500,000 people — are consulting, contracting, otherwise self-employed, permanently on the shelf and doing odd jobs, or doing permanent part-time work when they want full-time, I’d say this change is well advanced.

It’s not, by the way, as though none of us could see it coming. Europe’s been running 20-30 years ahead of us on this. Take a look at their official unemployment and underemployment statistics over time, then look at ours in Canada and the United States, and let me know if it doesn’t add up to the same profile, just offset by a few years.

I had the opportunity to write for a student audience over the weekend on the subject, in a piece entitled “Student? Facing unemployment? Make a job”, which I’d urge you to read to gather in some ideas if you, like me, never wanted to be self-employed but find that circumstances in your life are forcing you into that track.

What I want to explain here is what’s going on, because it’s the source of so many ideas you can run with if you’re feeling boxed in and forced to suddenly come up with an idea for your own enterprise when all you really want is a new job.

Jobs are a fairly new thing in the world. (Work — and lots of it — we’ve had for millennia.) They’re an outcome of the industrial revolution, which, in turn, was the outcome of being able to exploit very concentrated energy resources (coal at first, then oil, natural gas, and electricity [which tends in most places to depend on these]).

All of a sudden the scale of things could expand, ultimately encompassing the globe. The population of the planet exploded. So, too, did the sheer number of things people could aspire to own and use.

Call it progress, or prosperity, or whatever else you like, it was a huge spike pointing almost vertical after generations of near horizontal “one year’s much like the last one” in human history.

It’s what gave us global corporations, continent-sized countries, and a host of other “big” entities for which to work. The prosperity also allowed us to aspire to solve more than a few problems which otherwise had been with us since the beginning.

But it was all built on cheap, and abundant, hydrocarbons (coal, oil, gas). (Electricity, like hydrogen, is a carrier of energy, not a raw source of it.)

Did you know, for instance, that up until the 1960s Canada’s governments — federal, provincial, or municipal — were quite small? They exploded in size as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, in a conscious plan to “sop up” the baby boom generation as it graduated from the country’s schools. Today we look at the programs all that hiring created and can’t imagine a society without medicare, lots of public housing, and a host of other services.

But we didn’t bloat the public sector and create all those jobs because we felt rich enough to tackle intractable problems of poverty and inequality — we tackled the problems (establishing a cycle of growing public sector insolvency) to create the jobs.

That’s why, now, as rising energy costs and falling abundance (non-renewable resources do eventually run out of the easy to get, cheap to extract, leaving only the expensive, tough to get at, and dirtier ones left) squeeze the global economy, those that can mobilize what’s left acquire each other, governments practise austerity (and therefore won’t be creating jobs they way they used to), and jobs are the casualty.

We ran up the spike to the tipping point, and now comes just as rapid a set of changes down the other side. That means ever more of us will be making our own way through the world in the years ahead.

Don’t, by the way, think that technology is the answer. When author James Howard Kunstler went to Google’s headquarters and talked about this energy cost situation, he was laughed at by the Google staff. “Dude, we’ve got technology!” — with no recognition that everything Google does needs energy, and lots of it, and that the very ads that are the company’s bread and butter need the rest of the economy to hum along or they’re without incomes, too.

On the trip down the back side of the spike, there’s innumerable opportunities to earn a good living. But they’ll have to be created — because the traditional sources of money (jobs) are shrinking as a share of the total sources of work.

But as companies shrink (via offshoring, automation, and merger effects), and governments tighten their belts, there’s opportunities for many different types of entity to fill gaps and provide needs. Likewise, as the big grow ever bigger, the underbrush of the economy — what goes on in your community — creates more and more niches you can occupy.

Just as the early mammals ducked for cover while the dinosaurs stomped around. Take a look around and see who inherited the earth sometime.

Helping you understand these times (and the times to come), and figure out where you fit in it? That’s where we come in at PDD. Talk to us.

Security for the future has a whole new look these days.

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