07/11/2010 09:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Work, and Tomorrow

We live in the world of work. But whether we hold onto our jobs or not, that world is being taken from us; taken by the blind forces of aging, science, and arithmetic.

In the '70s it was popular to say that work is how you survive, but your life was elsewhere. But that was even wrong then; aside from sleeping, work is how we spend our time and how we identify ourselves. For many of us, the rest of life is squeezed into the margins.

And those margins keep shrinking, whether we work in an office or on a road crew. For most professionals, a 60-hour week is now routine, while working-class people take for granted that they need to work longer hours, at several jobs, just to keep body and soul together.

As I said in an earlier piece, the biggest investors -- mostly pension funds -- are mercilessly squeezing the companies they invest in to do better and better, quarter after quarter, because their pensioners are routinely living well past what the funds' actuarial tables predicted.

This in turn is creating a dystopian world -- one in which many Americans will be frozen out of a life they considered their birthright as recently as the 1980s. That disappearing world was beautifully laid out in The Daily Kos, in its recent posting, "John Boehner's America".

But those of us who manage to stay on the inside won't be much better off. The world of blue-collar work is getting harder and poorer; but so is the white collar world.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the US is not replacing jobs at anywhere near the rate of the rest of the world. The piece blames most of this on weak banks and the huge amount of household debt; but anybody with a job knows another reason is that employers know they can get more work out of the same people -- so why hire?

That lesson won't be lost on business when the recession finally ends. And in fact we're already hearing from some economists that wages need to fall for business to regain their health, even though real wages for most working people have been pretty much flat since 1990, while the cost of living has been rising an average of 3.07 percent a year.

People are already seeing the result in the workplace; white-collar sweatshops. Today's offices, in fact, are looking more and more like call centers, where people work like machines in little cubicles, at jobs with a 97 percent failure rate. It's even worse for interns and young hires, who have work piled on them until they break -- after which management says the kid didn't have what it takes.

It's all unfair and mean-spirited; but what does that matter to management, when there are so many people dying to get any job? Even though, in fairness, management's just trying to survive in a brutal world driven by those investors -- driven themselves by arithmetic.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way.

Pension funds, for instance, could stop squeezing their investments without short-changing their retirees, if their sponsors -- companies and governments -- stopped demanding the funds make enough money to spare said sponsors the agony of actually contributing to said funds.

This is the great, open secret of pension funds; sponsors expect employees to make regular contributions to their pension out of their paychecks, but expect the funds themselves to be self-funding -- to make enough money that the sponsors don't need to put a hand in their own pocket. Then the sponsors can report the money they don't kick in as profit, while reporting the funds themselves as growing assets.

I hate to sound old-fashioned, but that doesn't seem very fair to me. If a corporation is a legal person -- as we learned in the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United ruling - -then that person isn't exempt from its obligations to the community; in this case, the community that makes up the company, and supports its pensioners. The same goes for governments, which -- according to theory -- are us.

Will plan sponsors bite the bullet and do this? Not without a fight. Companies will complain it will mean lower profits -- they're right -- and governments will warn it would mean higher taxes -- it will.

But isn't that a price worth paying? Do we really want to turn the world of work -- the place we spend most of our time -- into a nightmare almost no one can survive?

In any event, the probable complaints are, as usual, only half-true.

For instance: If all companies start contributing to their pension funds, then all company profits will decline by similar amounts, and no company will lose what MBAs call a competitive advantage.

The worst that could happen is that senior management would make a little less. And there's the real reason: Senior executives are raking it in too fast to want anything to change.

As for governments needing to raise taxes: It's time this country stopped worshiping at the altar of cutting taxes forever, and accept that you get what you pay for. That includes cops and teachers. Taking care of our own is part of our mutual obligations as a society. Plus, like I said, the government is supposed to be us.

Another thing we can do? Medicine -- and we -- can accept reality and stop imagining we should live forever.

I'm not talking about withholding treatment from the sick or convening those death panels Betsy McCaughey and Sarah Palin keep lying about. But I do think that modern medicine could use a dose of common sense.

Medicine is still wrestling with the idea that if something can be done, it must be done. But if you ask me, medicine should embrace what A. H. Clough wrote in the 1840s: "Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive officiously to keep alive."

It just seems to me that the typically aggressive treatment of every ailment of age is both unnecessary, and unwise. I know that I've had that conversation with my doctor; she not only agrees with me, but doesn't think it makes me suicidal -- only that I know death is part of life.

Demagogues are bound to turn that into something depraved, or sad; but it seems to me that it's a personal call, and none of their damned business.

It also seems to me that if we, as a people, embraced that idea, pension funds wouldn't have to squeeze their investments so hard, the living could live better lives, and the dying can be left in peace. And I don't see how that's a bad thing.

The problem is that even though there's no evil genius, or committee of evil geniuses, steering this bus -- you might wish there were -- the forces that really run this country, and keep stirring the political pot, have nothing to gain by allowing a rational discussion of either of those ideas.

In fact, it's much better for them if we keep slugging it out over a bunch of half-true slogans than come to grips, as a people, with what's turning our country into something out of a bad sci-fi movie. That way, after all, we won't notice what's happening right under our noses.

The worst thing about that: Said forces don't even care if what they're doing gets written up, and published.

In fact, pieces saying so are fine with them; it preserves the illusion we're living in a world responsive to the will of the people -- something the middle class goes along with out of delusion or fear, and that the working class understands is only going to work against them -- which is why they're so angry, and susceptible to the blandishments of right wing talk radio.

Those forces know they've got the whip hand, after all, and can always change the subject.