American culture tells us what we’re supposed to feel about employment, and more particularly about unemployment and underemployment. If we can’t work continuously in our area of skill, we are supposed to feel left out, rejected, overlooked. This is such a clear expectation that it may be hard to remember that it is just a cultural assumption and even harder to imagine that there is any special importance in people who are underemployed. But right now, only the underemployed can save us.
Most businesses this year are under so much pressure just to carry on their pattern of operations, and avoid getting shut down, that it is hard for them or their workers to think very far beyond that. It is a similar story in most government agencies. Those who are unemployed for more than a few weeks may similarly be under too much personal stress to look at any problems other than their own. It falls, then, mostly to those of us who are underemployed to take a look at the world’s problems.
In this period of global stress and rapid change, substantial problems are occurring with alarming frequency as we go along. In most years, and as recently as 2009, we would look to institutional power to solve these problems. But institutional power isn’t what it used to be and in 2011, petitioning government and big business to solve our problems is a painfully ineffective approach. Institutions have problems of their own and can barely be expected to listen politely. Many of these institutions are on their way to failure and will actually have to be replaced — and by whom? It falls to anyone who has the time, energy, and imagination to pay attention to the way things are working, identify problems, and think of creative solutions. Most of this, as I explained, will have to be done by people who are underemployed. It’s not the most obvious thing to do when the world isn’t recognizing your talents and you are all but shut out of the action. But who else is there?