The Iceberg/Powder Keg

Last week, a biochemist who was denied tenure shot six of her colleagues, and three died. An engineer blew up his house and piloted his private plane into an IRS office after publishing a manifesto claiming how, time and time again, tax judgments by the IRS had wiped out his savings and retirement. What wasn’t revealed by these reports is the fact that they’re the tip of an iceberg that’s been quietly growing over the past several decades.

What is this iceberg? It’s the ever-growing pressure in all areas of society to do more with less, and it’s been exacerbated by the economic meltdown and recession.

American manufacturing, as I noted earlier, is hiring as little as possible, and is either automating as much as possible or simply closing American facilities and importing goods from off-shore facilities or manufacturers in order to keep costs down. Admittedly, some facilities have retained hourly-paid employees, but have kept their hours the same or cut them hours while expecting higher production levels.

The same sorts of pressure have hit education on all levels. In most states, teachers and aides have been let go, and classroom sizes have increased. More students are going to college to try to improve their skills and qualifications, but across the entire nation, college faculties have been reduced and classes have been cut, making it harder and harder for students to graduate in a timely fashion, putting additional stress on the remaining faculty, the students, and their parents. Yet state legislatures are still demanding greater cuts in higher education because tax revenues are down, and the legislators are feeling pressure not to increase taxes. A professor who is denied tenure in this climate may never teach again, and granting tenure, no matter what anyone says, can be both arbitrary and unfair, and even if it is not, it’s highly stressful and getting more so because everything is reviewed under a microscope. Over the past decade, I’ve seen or read about a number of cases, including one shooting, and another case where a professor literally attacked campus security, kicking and screaming, when being removed from an office he refused to vacate.

The TEA Party protesters are another symptom of this pressure, complaining primarily that taxes are too high and government too intrusive.

This pressure affects everyone and shows up in different ways. For example, I’m writing more books than I was ten years ago, and according to readers and critics, the books I’m writing now are better than the ones I was writing then, but I’m making less, even though the price of books is slightly higher. Why? Because I’m selling fewer copies of each older [backlist] title on average each year. This isn’t limited to me. Once you get below the top twenty best-selling authors or so, in general book sales are lower. Certainly, it now takes fewer copies sold to make the lower rungs on The New York Times bestseller list, and this reduction in reading has hit midlist and beginning authors especially hard. Much has been made of the fact that younger readers aren’t reading as much, so much so that another factor has been ignored — one that my wife and other professionals have told me time and time again. They’re all working longer hours, and they’re too tired to read as much as they used to. Now… there are those who’ve been downsized out of higher paying jobs, and they have the time to read — but they don’t have the money to buy books, or as many books.

Why are there more and more “reality shows” on television? One reason is that they’re far cheaper to produce — another result of trying to do more with less. Another reason is likely that they offer a way for hard-pressed individuals to “succeed” outside the normal occupational channels, where too often these days harder and longer and better work is required just to keep a job, rather than mark one for advancement.

Yet, for all the commentary on the “recession,” on jobs, on politics, I have yet to see a commentary on what all of these factors add up to for those who are still employed — ever increasing pressure on working Americans, from those at the lowest level to doctors, professors, and other professionals, who are feeling more and more that they’re being backed into a wall or a corner from which they cannot escape.

Whether that iceberg becomes a powder keg — that remains to be seen.

6 Responses to “The Iceberg/Powder Keg”

  1. Daze says:

    Clive Jenkins and Barry Sherman wrote a book in 1979 called The Collapse of Work, which set out that the computer revolution was, in due course, going to do the same thing to middle management and professional jobs what the first industrial revolution did to agricultural and skilled working jobs. The question they posed was: " is this going to lead to the Leisure Society of the sci-fi of the time, or is it going to be a world with the benefits going to a few, the work being done by a few more, and the rest being un(der)employed. Being (professional and scientific) trade unionists, the predicted the correct answer … But hey, warnings don't have any effect unless people hear them (see climate).

  2. j says:

    The really unfortunate thing is that America could in theory initiate reforms that would solve most of these problems, but won't actually do so because of systemic faults in the political system and general culture. A 'powder keg' disaster would almost be a positive thing, insofar as it could force some major changes. The crunch in academia is very real and has been steadily worsening for decades. What happens when the jobs disappear entirely and these bright and motivated people no longer have a productive outlet for their energy? Sadly, a slow decline sounds more probable. I can only hope that Australia, Canada, and the EU are able to see our mistakes and do better.

    Regarding working hours, I think this is one of the most important and under-discussed issues. Over the last thirty years, developed nations have reduced working hours by ten percent on average; in America, they've barely changed. And perhaps, as Mr. Modesitt says, they're even increasing these days. To appreciate good art, whether novels or music, requires energy and leisure time that those who work 50 hours a week with a long commute are unlikely to have. But will America ever reduce working hours to thirty-five hours a week with two months of paid vacation? Will it reconfigure cities so that people don't have to spend ten or more hours a week commuting? Not in my lifetime.

  3. Quinn says:

    I would like to tell Mr. Modesitt that I have graduated from reading used copies of his paperbacks, to borrowing the hardbacks from the library, to buying new hardbacks as they are published. Unlike many authors, I read the titles over and over, and the paperbacks just fall apart over time. I discover new details each time and fall into the story deeper with each re-read. But, it appears that I am the exception to the general trend. If I could buy them directly, and cut out the middle man, I would. Wish I could help you more.

    I really appreciated the time you took, Mr. Modesitt, autographing my wife's copy of Parafaith War, and returning it to me in time for her birthday. That was one of the best birthday gifts she ever received, and she still remarks on it. Thanks for treating these readers as treasures.

  4. hob says:

    Using Currency to colonize has the side effect of artificially limiting constructive work–because constructive work is so highly valued, only a few can be employed as such. Even though the majority are capable of doing so.

    I suppose one could argue for special economic zones to be employed by individual states. I guess thats why orgainzed criminal gangs in America have been so successful or allowed to function so freely during the previous depression.

  5. Andrew says:

    I think this column aligns nicely with a piece the NYTimes just published: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/technology-and-tenure/

  6. Alastair says:

    One of the problems America has in my opinion is that the news media doesn't spend much time looking outside America.

    Right now both Chinese and Indian students are happy to spend many more hours at school as they see that as the way forward.

    Other countries are forging ahead in various matters that are never really covered by the main stream news programs. For example these clean energy jobs. Scotland through wind farms, hydro, tidal energy is now getting 31% of its energy through renewables.

    Most of those hi-tech call centers are found in India.

    Then interesting new research is suggesting because of our over use of bottled water it is having an affect on male sperm and in one Canadian town for every one boy born there are 6 girls born. While this is extreme this trend is reported to be growing in Canada.

    I'd also suggest that marketing people with their over reliance on TV adverts have successfully reduced the viewing population. Having been brought up in the UK where the BBC channels are advert free I find the sheer volume of advertising in North America to be so extreme I find little pleasure in watching it. And yet TV remains a good source of education so if we're watching less we're getting educated less.

    Then when it comes to the Web banner adverts, image adverts are the norm. I still say the Web is the greatest communication tool we've ever had but the sheer lack of communication by organizations is just pathetic. It would seem that our marketing people are mostly brain dead and are unable to talk to people any more. This medium is fantastic for "Education Advertising" where you can tell a story about your product or service.

    It just seems to me that we lack real vision and enterprise these days.

    I read lots of books and I purchase lots of books. I have yet to find any way for me to really learn about authors in the SF and Fantasy genre. If I happen to stumble upon a new author (and I mean new to me as they may well be an old author) I will likely go to Abe books to pick up a book to see if I like it or not.

    I'd like to see a mailing list come out that would come to me once a week that would focus on one author. I am not fussy about knowing about the author at this stage but I'd like to know the titles of the books they've written. I'd then like to learn about one book in particular with a summary and get the first chapter included in the email. I could then make a decent decision as to whether to purchase the book(s).

    Should the books be a series then I'd also like to know in what sequence to read them.

    Perhaps in the email they could offer a special offer for the first book in the series with a clickable link to purchase it online.

    Anyway… if such a mailing came out that would be 53 authors I'd learn about. In fact on this format I wouldn't mind learning about 2 such authors each week.

    I get a touch fed up by having to click on a link to find out more. And so I'd much prefer to get this in an email.

    Anyway.. some thoughts to keep things ticking.

    Alastair
    http://www.electricscotland.com

    And yes I'm a history nut which is why I like to relax with SF :-)