Close

June 13, 2012

A suggestion to the unemployment problem, from 200 years ago.

Napoleon and a British soldier carving up a glove as if it were the plumb pudding

Like Napoleon, you too could carve a place for yourself in a competitive economy

In 1812, changes in technology, bank failures, and an economic recession (partly brought about because the European market was cut off by war) were putting people in Britain out of work.  But one man saw a solution.

Riots and protests threatened to destroy order.   The most infamous group of these protestors were the Luddites, who were able to assemble at a moment’s notice and cause disruption almost anywhere in the country.

The Luddites broke sewing frames and demanded loyalty oaths.  They are sometimes called “frame brakers”, although the frame breakers might have included a lot of people who didn’t share the extreme political views of “King Ludd” and his reactionaries.

The Luddites, we are told, lost their jobs because they were made obsolete by new technology.  That isn’t entirely true.  Demand for certain goods also dropped, due to trade issues and diplomatic disputes.  And as the Luddites rioted, destroyed property, forced oath takings, and stole weapons, consumers turned against them, which only brought demand further down.

One reader of the Leeds Mercury said that he didn’t believe the Luddites’ excuse that they “couldn’t get jobs.”  He saw them as trying to force people to buy things they didn’t want.

“You shall buy a callimanco petticoat, or I’ll break your windows.”  He imagined them saying to a woman. “You shall wear a pair of draw-boy breachers, or I’ll shoot you.”  he imagined a Luddite saying to a man.  Creating “pain” to sell products didn’t work then any more than it does now.

“Justus”, as he called himself, saw a decrease in quality due to new production methods, but he didn’t see that as any excuse for the aggressive marketing of the Luddites.

If the Luddites were to use the new technology, the reader pointed out, and go for the new jobs it created, they earn from a gineau to 25 shilling a week.  Apparently, that was a good wage for those days.

As Europe was cut off from Britain by war, the market for British cloth goods shrank.  But trying to create cloth with the old method, to keep the old jobs, was not the way forward.  France and Italy were using the latest technology to create their own cloth, as war cut them off from cheap British imports.

The British had to keep up with the pace of development on the continent, if they wanted any trade when peace eventually came; “or we shall eventually find ourselves sadly behind hand.”

“Justus” continued that there was work in Northern England, around Halifax, “if people chused to turn their hand to such as offers itself, I really think they need not be idle.”  In other words, if they’d take the jobs that were available, there wouldn’t have been unemployment, provided they didn’t all go for the same job.

But that was part of the problem.  People were going for the same jobs instead of differentiating their skill sets.  “If two men go to ask work at the same place and both persist in being gardeners, it is very probably they may not both find employment; but if one take the gardener’s place and the other the groom’s, they may both be employed.”

In the same way, perhaps if we are able to differentiate our skills today, so that the services we offer have slightly different USPs, we may be able to bring more work.  Instead of two web designers competing for the same job, they could join forces, one as the graphics designer and usability guide, and the other dealing with the security and e-commerce issues.

Likewise, a writer could team up with a researcher.  A picture researcher could team up with an archivist.  Larger teams could seek different parts of the market, and offer their services together.

The same could apply in almost any field.   Coordination between job seekers seems like a great idea, 200 years in the making.

But Justus’ ideas don’t stop there.  He also suggests that job seekers expand their skill sets.  Don’t think about what you can’t do, but learn new ways to do things.

“If by any accident, a weaver were to lose one of his legs, would it not be thought strange perverseness if, because he could no longer use his feet for earning his bread, he were obstinately to persist in refusing to learn to use his hands for that purpose?  All this I know cannot be done without inconvenience; but any being capable of feeling and reflection, would rather, O surely! much rather, suffer inconvenience than incur guilt.”

Justus wrote this on the 26 of May, 1812, but it still held true when it was published on the 6th of June.  Though we no longer weave with our legs, there may be things we feel we cannot do.

Where I live, we are somewhat isolated.  Internet access was slow coming here, and it still isn’t as reliable as in some places.  The population is small and dispersed, the roads turn until they turn your stomach, and it is tiresome to get to any population centre (or even to an airport.)

When we get in the news, it’s usually because people are locked in their homes due to snow, ice, or more recently, floods.

All this creates worries when we are cut off from friends and family.  Sometimes, it’s risky to go to work in the morning (or to travel to see a client) because you don’t know if the road will be open when its time to go home.

It’s easier to give up the dream of individuality and independence and say “I’ll move to the industrial capital and work the corporate sales ladder.”

Two hundred years ago, people moved across the Atlantic, because there really was no opportunity in Britain.  William Cobbett tells a story of a Scottish man, who had twenty pounds of butter, given to him by relatives.  Because he looked too poor to own that much butter, he was arrested and the butter confiscated.

Today, prejudices can come from other areas.  There are still shallow minded people who don’t think we have the talents we claim to have, because we don’t “look” or “act” like that “type” of person who would fit.  Sometimes, these people make the hiring decisions, and that’s life.

Rather than creating discouragement, the limitations caused by the weather, prejudice and geographical isolation have led to new ideas. There are a lot of lemons to make lemonade with.  (Finding the sugar and mixing it in takes work, but that’s the fun part.)

So, thank you Justus, for your words of encouragement.