FORTUNE -- What happens to a nation's collective psyche when millions of once-productive people remain out of work for months or even years? ... there is the psychological toll on individuals and families -- and on the nation.We already know what happens when millions of Americans lose the habit of work: they begin to elect politicians who will pay them to continue to not work*. Problem solved, right?
Early on in the recession, popular culture seized on the romantic notion of tightening our belts and looking inward to frills-free fun with our friends and families, after a decade of borrowed hyperconsumption. Now we need to ask a less romantic question: What happens when millions of Americans lose the habit of work, a habit that lends balance, structure, dignity -- and, of course, economic support -- to lives?
But that aside, the question arises about this idea that everyone needs to have a job. That somehow, people who are not employed by someone else and paid in duly recorded-and-taxed wages are somehow not contributing to society. They are letting us all down by not 'contributing' to 'our' economy and they are destroying themselves in the process. It is assumed that we** need to do something about that, like changing tax rates or passing tax credits or something. Anything.
But do young mothers have an obligation to work outside the home to avoid causing psychic damage in otherwise unemployed daycare workers and in themselves***? Should we avoid gardening lest we disemploy legions of truckers, grocers, and lettuce-pickers? Or can we finally decide that, 'romantic' or not, we have likely seen the limits of debt-driven consumption for the next two decades at least? The bubble is not coming back, and the jobs that relied on building and selling all the things we found out we really didn't need are not coming back. And we**** need to make some adjustments in the face of that new reality. Mike T mentioned a "fundamental philosophical revolution" that needs to take place, and this is probably a part of that - the debt/consumption philosophy has failed or is at least in the process of failing, so whatever replaces it will be a revolution almost by definition.
So with that in mind, let me just say that, instead of being feared as "long-term unemployment," it's ok if young mom decides to spend the next decade doing work that's more important than hawking perfume at the mall. And rather than paying rent on a beachfront condo in Florida, it's ok if grandma and grandpa move into the McMansion basement to help mom and dad make the mortgage. It's ok even if it means the children aren't going to Disneyland ever again. It might be important even if GDP shrinks, if vacancy rates climb, or if tourism suffers as a result.
* oh there's plenty of other bad stuff, especially if they teach their kids not to work and or they reach a critical mass in any geographic area. But this is not about that.
** That's 'we' in the collective sense; when most columnists say 'we' they mean 'the government.'
*** "The only kind of work which permits an able woman to realize her abilities fully, to achieve identity in society in a life plan that can encompass marriage and motherhood, is the kind that was forbidden by the feminine mystique, the lifelong commitment to an art or science, to politics or profession. "
-- Betty Friedan.
**** That's 'we' in the personal sense rather than the collective. The government will continue under the old weltanschauung as long as it can be maintained.