Almost every day we hear that the citizen of the future must be a lifelong learner, that people will have multiple careers interrupted by periods of retraining, and indeed that the answer to the ills of globalization is to train workers for new careers if the industry they work in has been killed off by overseas competition.

Like so much of economics this seems to be based on a totally false idea of how people live and behave. A measure of job security, I suspect, is not some sociological ornament to be discarded in the interests of greater economic efficiency; it is a prerequisite for happiness.

This thought is prompted by reading “Janesville”, a new book by Amy Goldstein. I think I met Ms Goldstein once at a reception for winners of the Pulitzer Prize, of whom she is one.

Janesville is a town in Wisconsin, USA. It was the home of the oldest and largest car factory owned by General Motors. Curiously, it was for many years also famous as the home of the Parker pen. But who uses a fountain pen these days? The pen business succumbed to the competition of the disposable Biro years ago.

In 2008, the Janesville GM works closed. The town did not have much else going for it. Firms supplying parts to the car factory also folded. Thousands of people found themselves jobless.

This sort of calamity is of course not in itself unique. The last story I remember working on before leaving the UK was that of Consett, a town in County Durham gutted when its steel works closed. Earlier I had written a long feature about the plight of Millom, a beautiful little town on the coast of Cumbria similarly afflicted when its iron mine reached the end of the ore deposits.

While writing this I Googled Consett and Millom to see if they had recovered. They have not.

Ms Goldstein’s unique contribution to this depressing literary genre is that she kept in touch with Janesville and many of its inhabitants for five years. The result is a sort of non-fiction version of Albert Camus’s classic novel of human reactions to oppression, “The Plague”.

Adversity brings out different things in different people. Some fight, some flee. Some become more generous, some more selfish. Some are absurdly optimistic, others despair. Some reveal unsuspected qualities, while others discover things about themselves which they would rather not know.

File photo: Pexels.

Families also vary. Some disintegrate under pressure; some pull together. One of the most touching scenes in the book involves two teenage daughters working out how they can buy the family’s groceries with their part-time earnings, without humiliating their unemployed father.

The book is by no means consistently depressing. Readers who have been fooled by Americans’ self-description as a bunch of rugged individualists may be surprised by the amount of altruism and civic-mindedness to be found in an American town, even in these days of “Bowling Alone” and the collapse of the labour unions.

Readers who are accustomed to European-style social security systems, on the other hand, may be disturbed by the absence of the sketchy safety net which cushions this sort of catastrophe in a welfare state.

Ms Goldstein does not explore these themes. Indeed the book does very little for your opinion of politicians, who seem – regardless of party – helpless when faced with a social problem on this scale.

None of the usual suggestions offered to cushion the blow of technological redundancy seem to work out very well either.

Get on your bike and move is all very well for young things, for whom shifting to the nearest big city may be an attraction.  The problem for the older worker is that he owns a house. And in a town where the main industry has evaporated you cannot sell a house.

People who had worked years for GM did have the right of first refusal of any job which came up in the company elsewhere. So people took jobs in GM plants hundreds of miles away and became weekend commuters, a distressing fate for a family man and also rather expensive.

A GM worker. Photo: Wikicommons.

Retraining was offered on a grand scale. This was done with considerable care and enthusiasm by the local community college, which was expanded to cater for the new demand and undertook careful studies of which skills might be in demand.

Analysis of the results of this effort are disappointing. The people who completed courses at the college were slightly less successful in finding replacement jobs than the people who just went with what they had – in most cases a High School leaving certificate and years of irrelevant experience putting SUVs together. The retrained people also earned less.

In fact whether you look at the survey results or the anecdotal evidence it is clear that what happened to Janesville was bad news all round. The good old days were better, and have gone for good. Most people now still have lower incomes and their houses are less valuable.

The problem which the standard prescriptions overlook, I think, is that retraining in your existing profession is a help, and probably something you will volunteer, even pay, for.

Journalists in my age group started with typewriters and hot metal, gradually replaced by variations on the computer and now, for many of us, the paper edition itself has disappeared.

This is nothing new. Ernest Gann noted in the 1940s that although many of the pilots who had pioneered civil aviation in open cockpits in the 20s were still working in the business, most of the maintenance men of that era had disappeared. Unless they were prepared to study constantly the aeroplanes got too complicated for them. We all need to keep up.

Changing to another career altogether is another matter. If you become an absolute beginner in a new field, then you are going to get an absolute beginner’s salary and benefits. The idea that we shall all flit from career to career is a recipe for happy bosses and miserable workers. Which sums up the Chicago school of economic theory pretty well.

I suppose it would now be considered rather quaint to suggest that employers should accept moral obligations to the people they employ. How 1950s! Still I think the notion that the management’s only obligation is to the company’s shareholders is a nasty idea which appeals to nasty people.


Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.