Two events thousands of miles apart this week might look to have little in common. But in fact they are part of a continuum that could be the start of a change in how the industrialised world — especially the U.S. and the U.K. — conducts business, particularly as it affects employees.
The first event was the speech in Chicago on Wednesday by President Joe Biden in which he embraced the term “Bidenomics,” which had previously been used against him by opponents. In doing so he set out his economic vision for the U.S.. “The economy that grows the economy from the middle out and the bottom up instead of just the top down. When that happens, everybody does well,” he said. The President added that his approach was a direct challenge to the “trickle-down economics” favoured by many of his predecessors in recent years. This theory suggested that tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations would translate into benefits for those less well off. Instead, they have led to a rise in the national deficit and subsequent cuts in investment in such areas as education and infrastructure and encouraged companies to cut costs, often by replacing domestic workers with those in factories overseas. The story in the U.K. has been similar, symbolised by another critical event this week, the news that Thames Water, the largest water company in the country, was in danger of collapse under the weight of its debts totalling £14 billion. The development comes at a time when the sector, which was privatized under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has been under increasing pressure over sewage and difficulties in maintaining supplies to customers.
The other event was the vote by the U.K.’s senior doctors to strike for the first time in nearly half a century. Coming on top of existing industrial action by junior doctors and nurses calling for improvements in pay and conditions, this is surely a sign that dissatisfaction with the way things are going has spread beyond a few extremist trade unionists determined to bring down the government (as certain sections of the media would have it). In short, even those who until recently might have been regarded as having secure well-rewarded jobs — in addition to workers in the health sector this includes the likes of teachers and civil servants, who have also been taking industrial action — are saying that they are feeling exploited.
If that is the case for senior doctors think of what is must feel like for nurses and other less well-paid healthcare workers. In the U.K., these employees have long been arguing that it is hypocritical for ministers to praise them for their efforts during the pandemic only to ignore their pleas for better pay and conditions since. In the U.S. — although the system is very different — the situation is much the same, with so many nurses leaving the profession that observers are predicting a healthcare crisis if drastic action is not take soon.
In Florida, Jessica Sites has become so concerned that after more than 20 years as a nurse she has left to become a social media influencer and healthcare advocate speaking out on behalf of those who remain in the profession. In a telephone interview, she said that, while the problem had been developing for some time, the pandemic “pushed it into the stratosphere in terms of making things worse.” Other factors included nurses having to switch from hand-written notes to electronic files without adequate training, the requirement for them to have four-year degrees and the general stress and strain of having to try to maintain patient care while suffering from worsening staff shortages. On top of this there was the increasingly common threat of violence, particularly involving guns. Among the changes she is calling for are mandatory patient care ratios for nurses, protocols governing how hospitals react to violence against staff and — of course — better pay.
Which brings us back to President Biden. As he said in Chicago, for the first time in a generation, “the path of the middle class seemed out of reach.” The idea that if you work hard you can secure a good job, a house and a reasonable life for your family already looks like a bad joke to many young people. This matters because it is often said that when policymakers are seeking to encourage developing countries to become democracies they see the development of a vibrant middle class as a vital step along the way. Similarly, historians suggest that revolutions result not so much from disgruntlement among the masses as from the disappointments of the middle class. If countries like the U.S. and the U.K. can no longer sustain a middle class that is not good for communities and society in general.
It is certainly not good for business. Corporate leaders are very keen these days to set themselves up as standard bearers for various campaigns. But they could do just as much — if not a lot more — good by ensuring they create good jobs that pay a fair wage and come with appropriate benefits, including training that enables employees to keep developing and so stay in work. As the President said in his speech, recalling his father’s words, a job is about a lot more than a pay check. “It’s about your dignity, how you’re treated, and being able to make a living and you can tell your kids it’s going to be okay.”
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