Monday, March 23, 2009

Who Can Rescue the Economy?

The U.S. economy has never had 10 million high-skill, high-performance workers only fractionally employed, and that is what is about to happen. It is not that they will be forced out of the job market or out of business, but they will be forced to make compromises, and many will choose to spend less time on the job.

This group also holds the best chance of rescuing the economy from a depression.

Of course, if you are a talented person who just can’t get any breaks, is barely scraping by, and would risk getting laughed out of a bank if you asked for a loan to start a new business, it surely sounds strange to hear that you’re the one who can rescue the economy. As strange as it sounds, though, it just might work.

It has to work. To begin with, there is no one else. Others are working overtime trying to rescue the businesses they work for. Whether they succeed or fail in the end, the effort of trying to prop up a faltering institution is sure to leave them exhausted and ill-prepared to take on any new challenges. And Washington? Same story there. If politicians can figure out a way to keep the government out of bankruptcy, that is enough of an accomplishment. At the same time, there are also people who are really not getting by — too worried about their own situation to look at the bigger picture. Let’s face it, if you had to spend the day figuring out how to build a shelter out of cardboard boxes, you might not end up doing too much more than that. When you look for answers along this continuum, underemployed and barely scraping by is the most powerful place to be.

And if that’s not reason enough, there is your own economic security to think about. When you aren’t in a position to profit from a downturn, and you can’t build financial strength by saving your excess income because you’re not making that much income. But you can get a head start on whatever you might do in the future. Anything at all you can do at this point to prepare yourself will tend to boost your future production and income. And your actions in getting ready for your future work in better economic times are part of what will create those better times. So, in a sense, being partially employed now lets you get a head start on the coming boom.

It scarcely matters specifically what you do to prepare, as long as you are solving problems or investing in yourself. Many people, those with the money to pay for it, are going back to school to get master’s degrees. When you get right down to it, studying anything that interests you and is of value to society makes you better prepared to produce something of value. On the other hand, just making yourself more healthy also has that effect. If you smoke or are a little overweight, you will never find a better time to get fit and develop healthy habits. Remaking your lifestyle is a tough thing to do when you’re working overtime, but becomes much easier when you have extra time to dedicate to it.

What else can you do if you find yourself with more time on your hands than you are used to? If you have a backlog of things to do, perhaps some things to fix around the house, get them done now. This is something I write about in my book Fear of Nothing and from time to time in the Fear of Nothing blog. I also write about the need to eliminate clutter, and if you are less than fully employed, you might sell some of your excess possessions that in busier times might not be worth the time to sell.

If you are not so worried about how you will make money, there is no end of useful things you can do. Depending on your skills and interests, you might contribute to an open-source software project or create your own secret software product that you will spring on the world a few years from now, after you finish it. You might clean up all the litter in the neighborhood or teach people how to read. If there is something you like to do, you might learn how to teach it so other people can do it too.

Some people with unexpected free time are forming bands, making movies, writing novels and blogs, and training for marathons. Anything like this creates a basic vitality that adds to the strength of the economy.

An especially valuable thing you could do is come up with a solution to one of the economy’s problems. By this, I don’t necessarily mean solving the banking crisis, but just finding any way to make something better or more efficient. If you can design a more efficient grocery bag or a faster way to wash a car, those are the kinds of innovations that help bring a depression to an end. And when you just learn or try out other people’s innovations — maybe something as simple as working out how to scan your files instead of keeping a file cabinet — this helps to speed the process along.

Whatever you decide to do, proceed as if today is the day. You never know how long a recession will last, and if you are counting on a slow economy to give you the time to accomplish something, you need to seize the moment as soon as it arrives. Imagine you’re one of the people who decide it’s time to get a master’s degree. It takes many people four years to get a master’s degree while they’re working part-time. Four years from now, will the economic expansion be just getting started — or will it be well underway, and will you have missed the chance to get in on the ground floor in an up-and-coming company in your field? You can’t say at this point what will happen, so you are better off being ready as soon as you can be — and then doing more to be even more ready. Whatever tasks you choose for yourself, there is a chance that time will run out. If you decide to fix up your house, then get a job offer that requires you to move and sell your house, you will surely wish you had started sooner on fixing the house. So don’t delay. Though it sometimes seems otherwise, time in an economic downturn is ultimately as valuable as time in an economic boom, so make the best use of it that you think of.

The best thing about this is that all the actions of the people who decide to get a head start on the coming economic boom will be what creates the economic boom. A boom happens because there a high level of economic activity. The things you do now to get a head start on the boom will make the boom happen that much sooner.