Contrasting Empathy.

I want to have a conversation on how we frame our post-mortem of the election. All of the talk about empathy is swell, but I think that’s a two-way street, and what bothers me can only seemingly be broken down into contrasts:

1. Empathy vis-a-vis gender.

The first draws on two thoughts: 1) men in their prime are out of work in at an all time high, and; 2) the jobs that are available are service sector jobs and commonly referred to as “pink collar” jobs since they rely on skills commonly viewed as feminine (e.g., caretaker roles.)

For the former, “prime” is the key word. It’s a lot harder for anyone with a significant long-term investment in a skillset to drop it and grab a new one. This often requires retraining if not new education. That’s a time investment in its own right, and even if you get hired and can start tomorrow, your applicancy is competing against younger counterparts who will gain experience over a longer period of time. They do not have to incorporate concerns about looming retirement or sending their kids to school or maybe even supporting a family at all into wage negotiations. This group I’m segmenting off, and so do those numbers, for a reason.

With respect to the latter, there’s an understanding that a psychic element exists with employment. We accept for traditional white collar professions that these are a calling and part of our identity. Less so with “low skill” jobs (a term that’s debatable.) I wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion that people who derive enjoyment from their work are not only better workers, but more ambitious, more likely to take reasonable/calculating risks, and generally more likely to make the economic pie grow on top of other positive externalities.

But as Cathy O’Neil points out in the podcast, being paid something is being better than being paid nothing. Or is it? Because as is later discussed, plenty of men are opting out of work in lieu of social welfare programs, so the relevant calculation is weighed against those benefits rather than 0.

So this has me thinking about a few things. The first is how empathetic do we need to be towards people who dislike their position not necessarily because they value working with their hands or have a skillset that is no longer necessary; rather, they simply do not like the idea of doing something womanly? Do we indulge that?

Similarly, On the Media had an excellent deep dive into poverty in America. One revelation was the extent to which poor people, most of whom were single mothers, often had to choose between having a job and feeding their family. This is because having a job would result in losing social welfare benefits that paid for necessities like food, and the available job was low paid. One could either take the job and be unable to make ends meet, or make ends meet by ensuring they remained impoverished and therefore qualified for welfare benefits.

In the American narrative, people who can work but don’t are demonized. We have a name for them – a gendered one: welfare queens. Thus we have this subset of young men who either won’t work or work sporadically but cannot hold a job down who are taking advantage of social programs and our takeaway from this is to empathize with them and try to solve the problem. In contrast, for decades, we’ve had poor people who are predominantly female have similar tough choices to make, and we’ve cast them in this unforgivably lazy and parasitic light. Again, I feel I have to ask to what extent does our empathy apply? Or maybe to whom? In being empathetic, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we’ve been too unfair or judgmental with respect to all people and not just the white (male) working class?

2. Empathy vis-a-vis race.

This one is simple to state: there is an opioid epidemic running rampant in the same disaffected parts of a America suffering from loss of manufacturing jobs. With light shed on this, there have been several calls in editorials and from organizations to combat this phenomenon and the destructive impact it has had on communities and families, to say nothing of the clearly sad lethality of drug abuse.

But when drugs impact black communities, our response is far less empathetic. It’s severe. Family breakdown is attributed to diminished morality; our solution to combating drug abuse has been to incarcerate people, and; we have this general understanding that people who enter this cycle of drug abuse (and often poverty) are bad and suffering moral failings that need to be harshly corrected.

I’m not sure if the change is wholly due to race. We have a more sophisticated and generally empathetic approach to drug abuse now in contrast to the early days of the War on Drugs. Still, it begs the question: why is it we turn our eyes towards sensitivity and problem solving for this demographic and not others?

3. Empathy vis-a-vis generation.

This is the one I struggle with the most. I spent a year looking for work after law school. I worked the year in between undergrad and law school. The prevalent narrative for my generation – who was searching for work during the peaks of the Great Recession – was that:

1. Life isn’t easy;
2. You’re not entitled to a job;
3. You need to work harder.

But when middle aged and older Americans struggle to find work, someone stole their job and trade deals are unfair to Americans.

I suppose I want to know when being an American stamped your name on a job — when it gave you a property right in employment such that someone could wrongfully take it from you. I’m an American. I was born here. Where was my job with my name on it when baby boomers were calling me entitled?

I want to know when suddenly market forces had to be harnessed in a way that was fair to a specific group’s interest at the expense of a greater net economic benefit. I want to know when the correlation between working hard and getting a job disappeared. The disparity between gains for older folks and my generation still loom and in a way that goes above and beyond their simply having had more time to accumulate wealth.

Finally, when I was looking for a job and couldn’t find one, the basic assumption was that I felt I was too good for certain kinds of work, like service sector work (I applied to these jobs, for the record.) I was told that my generation was entitled for “assuming” (we didn’t) work would be there. If I wasn’t employed, there was causation between this failing and my work ethic, or lack thereof.

Clearly this is the spot where I have the biggest chip on my shoulder. When I talk about it in terms of solving problems, I agree that these are problems to be solved and these people deserve my empathy. However, I won’t pretend that I haven’t been considering why – here and now – we as an American society have suddenly decided that this is the problem to be solved. My suspicion is that it still has a lot to do with the fact that the litmus test for a free/wealthy/just society is how we treat older white males, since this is our traditional normative conception of “the people.”

It bothers me that even the most well-intentioned of critics and policy makers fail to consider this and, to the contrary, this is viewed as a focus on “just issues” rather than identity politics, when identity seemingly has a lot, if not everything, to do with why these concerns have jumped the line.

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