The Loss and Gain of Skills in Long-Term Unemployment

There is a common, widely reported belief that long-term unemployment causes people to lose their skills.  This idea has some potential, both within and beyond its ordinary scope, but it seems to call for refinement and restriction.

There certainly are skills that need to be honed and developed constantly.  You can lose your edge.  Then again, this can happen on the job as well as off.  Employment does not prevent people from becoming complacent, ignorant, or misguided, not even in precisely the areas where they are supposed to be expert.  Incompetence does not require nurturing; to the contrary, it always stands poised to creep in, plaguing attorneys and university professors as surely as it does the disaffected bureaucrat and the bored burger-flipper.  Often, in fact, a person is more likely to develop his/her adjustment to reality by getting away from the godawful conditions that infect assorted forms of stultifying employment – by getting out, that is, to start his/her own company or to devote more time to some genuinely interesting pursuit.  The objective in this regard is not to have a job, for it will not guarantee your continued sharpness:  it is, rather, to have a vocation that engages you.

People lose their jobs for all kinds of reasons.  One notable reason is that they have ceased to be competitive – that their skills are not, in fact, keeping up with the demands of the job market.  It does not seem that someone whose skills have gone slack needs to be kept in the kind of job that would allow this to happen.  Rather, in such circumstances, it can be advantageous to get out of that sort of job, to begin discarding skills and attitudes that contributed to one’s obsolescence, and to get onto a path of retraining.

Erosion of skills is not always bad.  As discussed in another post, there are skills that facilitate the infliction of harm on others.  It takes a certain edge to be a successful lawyer or drug dealer, for example, or to be a super-salesman or terrorist.  In some instances, the world is better off with less-skilled practitioners.  Moreover, because we cannot be in two places at once, there are always other skills that are being neglected.  The hours spent developing one’s grasp of finance or accounting are hours that will not be spent in education on how to be a better parent, or in improving one’s own mental health or communication skills.  Long-term unemployment can contribute to a practical, positive realignment of skill acquisition priorities.

A particularly valuable form of skill erosion has to do with attitudes and beliefs.  Such erosion can occur on the job, but is especially likely to develop during long-term unemployment.  In various forms of the classic saying, idleness fosters devilry:  once you get off the treadmill and have time to think, there is no telling how you might bollix up the works.  You may find, that is, that you have both time and motivation to question the priorities and expectations that would put you into a crappy job, or that would compel you to cope with constant anxiety or disrespect during your years of employment.  That’s no way to live; and with half a chance to review the matter, some people are going to see that.

People who become wealthy and powerful through the existing order tend to favor means of keeping potential troublemakers off the streets.  Colleges, jobs, and prisons (and sometimes, military drafts) have shared the burden of making sure that people (especially young people) lack time and means to change the system as a whole.  Indeed, in recent decades, the notion of committing yourself to reform has often been treated as immature if not ridiculous:  everyone knows you are just supposed to get your job, mind your own business, and make yourself fat and happy.

We are now in an interesting era, however, in which those traditional bulwarks are showing signs of strain.  Jobs are under threat from both international competition and automation.  Prisons and colleges are increasingly questioned and in some instances de-emphasized, in favor of less costly alternatives; and in any case those are stopgaps, mostly tying people up for just a few years at a time.  It seems, in other words, that the reality of long-term unemployment for some, and the threat of it for many others, may contribute to wide and enduring doubts about traditional arrangements.

It can be difficult to imagine, but there really is the possibility of another world in which it would seem normal to have ample time to live one’s life, have fun, read, sleep, enjoy one’s family and friends, and question the pursuit of multiyear employment in socially defective (often, pathological) workplaces.  That is the world onto which today’s long-term unemployment opens, and appreciation of such a world may be most feasible for those who have voluntarily or involuntarily moved beyond the old expectations.

There is a response to the notion that continued unemployment leads to deskilling.  The response is that it is not necessarily that simple.  Skills are always being lost and gained; the question is, skills for what?  If one is losing skills that facilitate nasty employment in underpaid positions that compel neglect of key life priorities, some may conclude that deskilling is actually not a four-letter word.

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