WHAT should be the strategies for helping people to cope with the new economy - one in which a corporate job may no longer be for life, in which people may hold several jobs, even in different fields, over their working career?
One proposal that should be rejected immediately is for the federal government to intervene with tax "incentives" to reward companies that don't lay off workers or that do other things that Washington decides it likes.
Once Congress started down this slippery slope, the possibilities for adding to the list would be endless. The proposed incentives would reward companies that are already doing well financially while punishing those that are having problems, thus adding to those difficulties and making even more likely the job losses and community decay the policy is supposed to avoid. In addition, the regulations businesses would have to understand and implement would devastate small and medium-sized firms, exacerbating the problem and hurting the very sector that creates the most jobs.
Still, everyone - from the federal government to the individual employee - has a responsibility in helping society adjust to the new economy. The federal government's role should be primarily to provide judicious funding to state and local job-training and education programs. Such funding should have as few strings attached as possible to allow for maximum flexibility for state and local governments as they respond to local conditions. The states, in turn, should provide incentives for expanding company job-training.
State and local governments must also examine their tax structures and other laws to make sure they are neither driving job-creating businesses away nor interfering with the creation of new ventures. Enterprise zones can be a valuable tool in helping revitalize depressed areas. Most important, education must be both adequately funded and organized to equip individuals to cope with economic change.
This means a return to more state-provided university scholarships and less reliance on loans that mire young people in debt before they even have a job. It means ensuring that residents of depressed neighborhoods have targeted subsidized training available to them. It means more adult-education, vocational-training, and community-college programs. High-school curriculums should include mandatory courses on personal and family finance and basic economics.
Companies can do more to train their workers and provide them with opportunities to increase professional knowledge. And they should, as many already do, provide job-search assistance to those laid off.
Individual workers should treat learning as a lifelong experience and not as something that stops with a high-school diploma or a college degree. To compete in the new labor marketplace, employees should take opportunities to learn everything they can about the equipment, technology, and systems they are working with. Many now working in the computer industry, for example, started out using computers in a previous profession.
Employees should also take advantage of any retirement-savings plan offered by their employer, and if one is not available, should set up Individual Retirement Accounts. Less spending - especially running up credit-card debt - and more saving not only helps family finances, it strengthens the economy by creating more capital for investment.
More creativity in obtaining a higher education is also a help. It's long past time to get over the education snobbery that says a private university will automatically provide a better education than a public one. And good community colleges can help keep costs down for the first year or two of basic university courses.
A change of attitude
Finally, a less materialistic approach to life is required. A person's identity and worth are not defined by the prestige of his job, by how much money she has, by the house they live in or the car they drive. It's nice to have such things, but they are not the be-all and end-all of existence. Clearing such clutter out of one's thinking often opens one up to other possibilities.
Families that help each other morally and financially in time of need and couples less willing to entertain the possibility of divorce are strong bulwarks against poverty. The civic-mindedness that supports schools, libraries, museums, parks, and recreation programs helps create an environment in which companies want to locate. Employees who follow the issues and vote in elections strengthen the social fabric.
When all is said and done, however, the most important relationship one has is with the Creator. Those who turn to the "very present help in trouble," in the Bible phrase, are those who can best handle whatever economic situation comes their way.
*Part 3 of a three-part series. Parts 1 and 2 ran March 14 and 15.