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The many jobs a job can do

The recovering American economy isn't just good for individuals, families, businesses, and communities. It is important in the global war of ideas.

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A job – not just any job, but one that is reasonably fulfilling and pays a living wage – is important to millions of people for millions of reasons. Survival, self-respect, and opportunity are a few. So a new Monitor cover story (click here to read it) carries encouraging news about the millions of Americans who until recently had been unemployed or worried about job security, were working in places they’d rather not be working, or were struggling to make ends meet. 

Jobs are back. Head-hunters are hunting. Monster, Careerbuilder, and 15,000 other online job sites tracked by The Conference Board show strong and growing demand for workers across the country – from San Diego to Boston, San Antonio to Detroit. Your local McDonald’s and Home Depot are probably displaying “employment opportunity” signs right now. Got coding or database skills or are you just willing to put your shoulder into a task? You’re hired!

More jobs means more people feeling more secure and willing to spend more money to make their lives better – which leads to more jobs and prosperity. That cycle is not only virtuous for the American economy but crucial in the global war of ideas.

From China to Russia, the Middle East to Latin America, the United States is constantly watched and critiqued. That’s as it should be. For 239 years, the US has offered itself as an experiment in free-market democracy. Eric Hoffer, a self-taught 20th-century American philosopher, called the US a “fabulously productive, more or less self-regulating chaos of a society that has given the modern age its singular spirit, and set it off from all preceding centuries.”

But when an economic crisis hits – the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Great Recession of the 2000s – doubts arise. Did the wheels just fall off capitalism? Are free markets and democracy rigged? Those questions go away during times of prosperity, but they are always waiting to be asked again. China’s centrally planned hybrid system of capitalism and communism does seem to move faster and suffer less disruption than the American system. The return of strongman leadership in Russia does have an internal logic in a country racked by the widespread corruption and crime that accompanied post-Soviet freedom.

Dogma, force, personality, and top-down planning can be comforting and convincing for a season. Living the American idea – that 319 million Americans determine where their country is going – can be chaotic as the economy swings from boom to bust. This is why jobs are not just crucial for jobholders. They are practical proof that the American experiment is working.

Jobs are the way people feed their families. But they are more than that. Hoffer, who spent years working as a longshoreman, recalled, “A job might be unpleasant, dangerous or trivial, but it still had to be done, and it had a claim on your skill and ingenuity. Even the simplest job had its mysteries, and once you fathomed them you worked as if at play, and time flew.”

That’s one of many jobs a job can do.

John Yemma can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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