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The challenges facing employment in the United States

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The challenges facing employment in the United States

The last months and weeks have been a
period of extreme turbulence in American politics, bringing changes that
deserve to be called radical and perhaps even revolutionary.

In one of the country”€™s two major parties,
a socialist “€“ proponent of an ideology that has traditionally occupied no more
than a marginal position in U.S. politics “€“ remains in the running for the
presidential nomination.

Even more remarkably, the other major party
has in effect given its nomination for president to a man who comes from
outside the ranks of its established leaders: a businessman who has never held
elected office and who contradicts major elements of the party”€™s program as it
has stood for more than three decades.

Americans and much of the rest of the world
will be puzzling over the implications of these changes long after this
November”€™s election. The economic roots and ramifications of these events are
naturally of particular interest to business leaders.

Among the most heatedly debated issues in
the presidential campaign have been migration, international trade and the
nature and extent of the United States”€™ long-term military commitments abroad.

But no factor in this massive political
shift has been more important than changes over the last few decades in the
conditions and nature of work.

Since the year 2000, in acceleration of a
longer trend, the U.S. has lost more than five million manufacturing jobs.
Technology has eliminated some of these jobs, and globalization has moved
others to lower-cost locations abroad. New jobs often require specialized
training or else pay too little to permit one or even two parents to support a

For many without higher education or
specialized skills, these developments have been a catastrophe, marking an end
to the American dream of upward mobility to the middle class by means of
so-called blue-collar work.

Not coincidentally, this socio-economic
bracket of the U.S. population has undergone a social crisis, with rising
levels of drug and alcohol addiction, single-parent families and suicide.

Against this background, proposals to limit
international trade and reduce immigration have drawn the support of many
voters. Whatever the merits or defects of such proposals, any long-term
solution to the employment problem will involve the creation of jobs that can
give their practitioners a sense of dignity: not only adequate wages, but the
esteem of society and the personal satisfaction that comes from mastery of
responsibilities proportional to one”€™s talents.

This is, of course, also a challenge beyond
the shores of the U.S. As Pope Francis told European leaders last week,
progress on the continent requires that its young people find “€œemployment,
dignified labor that lets them grow and develop their handiwork, their
intelligence and their abilities.”€

Perhaps jobs of this kind will come in part
from the rediscovery of traditional crafts and trades. Most will probably have
to be invented: jobs in which workers use and add value to the technology with
which they can no longer compete.

The Centesimus Annus Pro Pontefice
Foundation, which is dedicated to the study and dissemination of Catholic
social doctrine among business and professional leaders, is planning a series
of initiatives to explore the moral implications of recent advances in digital
technology, including the powerful impact of that technology on the question of

The provision of dignified employment
depends in part on the efforts of legislators and educators. But the greatest
responsibility lies with business leaders, whether they be individual
entrepreneurs, executives in large corporations or the managers of

According to a document published by the
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2012, “€œfostering dignified work”€ is
part of the “€œstewardship of productive organizations”€ that is the vocation of
the business leader. This vocation also involves practicing the virtues of
justice and practical wisdom in leadership of what St. John Paul II called a
“€œcommunity of persons “€¦ at the service of the whole of society.”€

This vision is idealistic “€“ it might even
strike us as romantic “€“ but it is not unrealistic. I can say so on the basis of
personal experience.

My late father was a entrepreneur, who over
his a four-decade career provided work for several hundred full-time employees.
He always treated his employees with respect and loyalty, and tried to give
them as much responsibility as they could handle. In difficult moments, when he
was tempted to doubt the value of his own work, he took deep satisfaction in
the knowledge that hundreds of people had been able to use their talents and
support their families thanks to his initiative.

My father was a practicing Catholic all his
life. I never heard him refer to the church”€™s social teaching and I doubt he
ever studied it, but the vocation of the business leader as described above
would have stirred and inspired him.

Last September, Pope Francis told a joint
session of the U.S. Congress, quoting his social encyclical, Laudato Si”€™: “€œBusiness is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and
improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in
which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential
part of its service to the common good.”€

Polls show that the Pope”€™s apostolic
journey to the U.S. led Americans of all faiths to adopt a more favorable view
of the Catholic Church, but that this effect was markedly stronger among
Democrats and others with center-left political views than it was among
Republicans or self-described conservatives. This is presumably linked to a
widespread view in the United States, based on Pope Francis”€™ criticism of the
inequities of globalization, that the pope is not a fan of capitalism and

But business people “€“ like people in every
other line of honest work “€“ want deeply to believe that their work is noble and
possessed of greater meaning than mere personal gain. They thus make up a
highly receptive audience for the encouragement and guidance of the church”€™s
social teaching, as articulated by the Holy Father and others, such as the
Centesimus Annus Pro Pontefice Foundation.

At a moment when so many have lost trust in
major institutions, public and private, the Catholic vision of business
leadership remains powerfully convincing and appealing, with potential to
capture the imagination and raise the standards of its
practitioners within the church and beyond.


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