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.