Turbulence and stability

REGARDLESS of how the financial markets settle out in coming days and weeks, some things can be said about the turbulence of the times, and about a more secure set of values we have been asked to consider over many, many centuries. Commitments have shortened in recent years. People change jobs quickly. Employers, after mergers or plant closings or the shipping of jobs abroad, quickly cut back work forces. Young people scarcely look to a starting position as a career-long commitment to that firm: The notion of a long arching tenure with a company, with a worker rising from stock boy to middle manager to the leadership corridor, seems a thing of the past. Pensions have become more a portable, do-it-yourself benefit, rather than retirement sinecures. Temporary employment has become an industry, with whole departments rentable and and as replaceable as an oil filter on a car. Commitments - by worker and employer - are now more in the measure of months than of decades and years. Many young people, and many mid-career people, seem to like the flexibility this new short-segment worklife appears to offer. In high-employment regions like the East Coast, where supermarkets are having to offer double the minimum wage to attract checkout clerks, enough jobs have been available to keep workers afloat even if they cut loose or are turned loose.

Flexibility, not security, has even been the goal of the football players' strike, where the object was to win free agency rather than to hold onto the place on the roster at hand.

The economic pattern has its counterpart in family relationships, where people duck out of marriages more quickly, or seek to hedge against private commitment losses by cohabiting without marriage.

This flexibility, this willingness to offer and accept short-term commitments, the readiness to move on elsewhere, is in sharp contrast to the attitudes of labor in Europe, where the work force has proved far less mobile.

No doubt this has enabled the United States to create as many jobs as it has in the 1980s.

But the potential volatility and the clear uncertainty of short-term commitments must also be reckoned with.

In such a context, one of the obvious things workers and employers must do is to invest heavily in their own skills, in learning the work, in cultivating an understanding of group motivation and performance. Without a secure niche, one is more on one's own. Education, particularly a habit of self-education, should receive higher priority. This is true despite recent surveys which show that young people cynically tend to think personal contacts rather than ability or performance now lead to success.

And then there are values.

``Consider the lilies of the field,'' and the rest of that sermon, still sound like the safest investment counsel for the ages. Some relationships, some sense of purpose, must extend beyond an 18-month job horizon. We can toil and spin and miss the harvest if we fail to hold in thought the eternity we live in, the perception that appreciates the intelligence and effort of the human economic and social scene in a context where there are no crashes in commodity worth, no failure of expectation, no panic about losing all we have.

Today's economic and social scene may appear to have institutionalized volatility. No doubt corrective actions will shortly be taken by governments, private institutions, and individuals to adjust to recent events. But even this will occur against a more stable context of values, substance, and genuine achievement than in our rush-about world we pause to recognize.

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