China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Jun

Unemployment and involuntary idleness

Ancient literature contains many warnings against laziness. In Greece, Aesop contrasted the hardworking ant, which stored up food for the winter, and the musical, carefree grasshopper, which starved.

In the Bible, Proverbs 6:6-9, urges sluggish people to “learn from the ant,” show initiative, work hard, and save. In Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, Jesus acknowledged a valid excuse for those who did not work earlier in the day, “No one has hired us.” St. Paul worked as a tent maker when in Corinth (Acts. 18:3). Since that was a seaport, most of the orders probably were for making and repairing sails, not for inland use.

Confucius noticed the recluse (隐士) who lived in seclusion (隐居). Some yinshi were scholars who refused to serve a corrupt king. Rather than withdrawing from the world, Confucius trained disciples and kept searching for a good administration to serve. Even so, the Sage admitted the value of becoming a hermit: “Worthy men shun the world” (Analects 14:37).

Hard-working masses of people suffered in times of rebellion and invasion, flood or drought, and epidemic. Late medieval artists had a morbid fascination with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine, pestilence and death (Rev. 6:1-8).

Individual unemployment was blamed on laziness, alcohol, accident or illness, any of which often led to the misery of begging. St. Jerome (347-420) wrote, “Do some good deeds, so that the devil will always find you occupied.” This was later rephrased as “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Long ago, widespread or structural unemployment did not feature in any economy.

Both political scientists and popes worry

In recent centuries, as the economy became more dependent upon money and credit, the business cycle began and intensified. Many people lost their jobs involuntarily during a downturn. Capitalists in the 19th century urged governments to stay away from the market: “Let boom and let bust.” Yet there was enough pain and injustice to focus the attention of Karl Marx during the Revolution of 1848 and of Pope Leo XIII in 1891.

Pope John Paul II wrote On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), in 1981. Building on 90 years of papal teaching, he mentioned the right to life and subsistence. The fundamental issue is “suitable employment for all who are capable of it.”

The pope condemned unemployment as “the opposite of a just and right situation.” It is not just for a healthy adult to demand support from other people, or to be forced to spend days and years in idleness. Work is good since it gives workers an opportunity to develop their talents and to play their part in caring for God’s creation.

The issue is larger than the good will of this or that employer. International collaboration, treaties and agreements are needed to defend the dignity of the worker.

It may come as a surprise to some readers in the international city of Hong Kong that On Human Work views emigration a necessary evil which may cause moral harm. Perhaps the pope was thinking of husbands and wives being separated for long periods, due to lack of job opportunities at their native place.

Migrant workers should not be treated as second-class citizens. “The person working away from his native land, whether as a permanent emigrant or a seasonal worker, should not be placed at a disadvantage in comparison with the workers in that society.”

Actually, migrants are not citizens of the receiving country. They face obstacles acquiring permanent residence or marrying locals. “The value of the work should be measured by the same standard, and not according to the difference in nationality, religion or race.” Yet many countries import migrants because they will work more cheaply, can be fired more easily and are less likely to speak up for their rights. The world still has a long way to go regarding justice for all workers.

Why does the Church pay attention to employment and workers’ rights? Vatican II says, “Earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom. Nevertheless, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the kingdom of God” (Gaudium et Spes [Pastoral Consitution of the Church in the Modern World], n. 39). The Church and all its members need to be concerned with what happens outside the four walls of a church or convent.

Insights from physical blindness

John Milton (1608-74) lost his sight at age 43. After a few years of boredom and frustration, Milton wrote a sonnet, On His Blindness. He puts words in the mouth of Patience, “God does not need either man’s works or his own gifts” and concludes, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Elsewhere, the English poet reflected, “To be blind is not miserable; not to be able to bear blindness, that is miserable.” Confronted with enforced idleness, Milton needed Christian faith to accept harsh reality patiently. Then he was able to throw himself into composing an epic poem, Paradise Lost. Next, he began the sequel, Paradise Regained, and kept busy for the rest of his life.

Miltonwas trained as a scholar. He had enjoyed a fast-paced career in government service. Extensive reading and good memory served him well after his eyes failed. Yet there have been millions of “mute Miltons” who lacked the education and the support network to contribute to posterity. We hope that God has wiped away the tears from their eyes.

Louis Braille (1809-1852) went blind as a child. There was some training available for him, including raised type for three-dimensional writing. Braille replaced letters with dots and finished a user-friendly format in 1834.

Today, cataract surgery or laser treatment can restore sight to many people. Often the biggest barrier is lack of money to pay for an operation. Private charity and government subsidies have restored eyesight to many.

The trauma of unemployment

Losing your job can be as traumatic as losing your eyesight. How traumatic? In Singapore, the suicide rate among the unemployed is 20 times higher than among those with full-time jobs. South Korea is monitoring websites and chat rooms to detect and prevent suicide pacts. In the United States of America (US), grown children who are still living under their parents’ roof are called KIPPERS, meaning, not preserved fish, but Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eating Retirement Savings. The acronym quickly grows stale. Hong Kong has a 24-hour, English/Cantonese suicide hot line: 2896 0000.

China, with 20 per cent of the world’s population, has 30 per cent of global suicides. It is the only nation where more women than men end their lives. The lack of a safety net, medical insurance and pension payments worries farmers, while the single children of urban couples shoulder the entire weight of their parents’ expectations.

Rural life is changing. Grown children leave their parents to migrate to the city for a better future and traditional values are yielding to materialism. This has its dark side. Although farmers are slowly getting richer, they are falling farther and farther behind city residents. In both rural China and India, suicide rates have tripled in the past 20 years.

The lives of most people follow a predictable trajectory: study, find a job, get married, have children, care for aging parents and then finally enjoy retirement. Unemployment in early adulthood delays that plan. Being fired at age 40 or 45 is a threat to paying for the children’s higher education. Having to take early retirement, when your parents may need assistance, is another nightmare.

Young unemployed people do not want to wait and wait to fill positions vacated by their elders. But if older workers retire too soon, the next generation will have more retirees to support. The percentage of senior citizens in China will soar in coming decades. In 1980, when the One Child Policy was introduced, China had 22 per cent of the world’s population. In 2050, it might have only 16 per cent.

In the US, the preferred solution is to stop smoking, lose weight, stay healthy and keep working. This slows the aging process, and now people say, “50 is the new 40.” After the stock market crash, someone commented, “Yes, 50 is the new 40, because I’ve lost all the money I’ve been saving for the past 10 years.” Hopefully stocks will regain their full value, but unemployment seems set to remain high for at least another year.

A US cartoon showed four fierce-looking riders soaring above modern skyscrapers. The caption read the Four Horsemen of the Metropolis: crime, drugs, corruption and pornography. The artist did not list unemployment. However, a rising unemployment rate aggravates those social evils more surely than a rising economic tide lifts everyone’s standard of living. When looking for recruits, criminal gangs as well as terrorist groups are happy to find idle hands.

University students are worried

This month, a record 6.1 million students will graduate from China’s universities. About one million of last year’s 5.6 million graduates are still unemployed; others have found low-prestige jobs at lower salaries than they had hoped for. To find work in their field of studies, some graduates ended up in a small, remote city, not in prestigious Beijing or Shanghai.

China’s prime minister visited a university in January. Some students expressed anxiety about finding work. Wen Jiabao (温家寶) replied, “If you are worried, I am more worried than you.”

Many governments now are injecting funds into their national economies for economic stimulus. The sooner people get working again, the better. At least in the short term, they also serve who only print money. Hopefully the money will be well spent and not wasted, or disappear into various pockets and fiscal black holes. Long-term solutions require wisdom.

Bigger than China

Perhaps the reader has noticed that only a little of this month’s column is specific to China. Increased unemployment in 2009 is not confined to one nation. In a global economy, the pain is being felt around the world. As members of a global Church with a rich social teaching, Catholics not only pray for people around the world, but are also in solidarity with others who help and encourage the unemployed.