What’s happened to an honest day’s work?

We are told that we must work longer, and that the cost of public services must be frozen or cut for the economy to survive.

Federal and provincial governments are busy cautioning citizens to prepare for cuts in services and to get used to making do with less.

We follow economic indicators with apprehension, looking for signs of hope in data from the past month, quarter, or year. These indicators, however, are the trees that prevent us from seeing the forest. To recognize where we are, we need to step back thirty years.

In 1981 British Columbia’s population stood at 2,744,467. Today we are at 4,400,057, an increase of 60.3 per cent. More interesting facts are provided by British Columbia government statistics (http://www.bcstats.gov.bc.ca/).

One example is the change in our labour force. In 1981 it stood at 1,416,000 or 51.6 per cent of the population.

By 2010, as more and more homemakers found it necessary to find work outside their home, the labour force had grown by 1,042,000 (73.6 percent) to 2,458,000, or 55.9 percent of the population.

In 1981, 51 per cent of the population supported the other 49 per cent, and by 2010 56 percent supported the remaining 44 per cent. Employment did not grow in step with the labour force.

Full-time employment grew by 59.8 per cent, a slightly lesser pace than the growth in population. Part-time employment, however, exploded.

By 2010 part-time employment had grown by 296,400 (125.1 percent) over 1981. The number of unemployed increased by 62.2 per cent, more than the 60.3 per cent growth in population.

How can we rationalize stern warnings about the looming spectre of baby-boomers retiring? If their retirement were to reduce the labour force by 187,800, we would be back to where we were in 1981.

How can it be that governments find it difficult today to maintain public services – health care, justice, education – which governments managed to provide with apparent ease 30 years ago, when a lower percentage of the population was working and paying taxes?

There is one more statistic which renders that question more puzzling. British Columbia’s GDP in 1981, at market prices and stated in 2002 dollars (thank you BC Stats) was $84,482 million. By 2010 our GDP (still at market prices and stated in 2002 dollars) was $167,140 million!

The value of what British Columbia’s labour force produced in 2010 was an impressive 97.8 percent greater than what it produced in 1981.

Put another way, what a British Columbia worker produced in 2010 had a value 62.2 percent greater than what father produced 30 years ago! It is not that father was lazy; the gain in value of the labour force’s production was achieved through greater productivity: heavier trucks, longer trains, automatic bank tellers, self-serve gas stations, computers everywhere.

We are told that today’s economy is no longer able to provide for the common good as it did 30 years ago.

We are told that we must work longer, and that the cost of public services must be frozen or cut for the economy to survive. We are told that this is necessary in spite of the fact that a greater share of the population participate in the work force, that a smaller share of the population needs to be supported by that labour force, and that the value of what each worker produces is greater by nearly two-thirds.

Where is all the extra value of our work going?

Governments insist on cutting corporate taxes while demanding greater productivity from the labour force.

What is next? Automated grocery check-outs? Privatized justice administration? What is the road ahead for our labour force, is it a path or a treadmill?

P. Sainath, Hindu newspaper’s Rural Affairs editor, interpreted the fashionable trickle-down global economic theory thus: “All the food in the room has got to be on my table. Since my table cannot accommodate all the food, some of it is going to fall off and you guys get to eat.”

The effect of current government economic and taxation policies is to enlarge that table.

Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator now living in Terrace, BC.