Views on politics and current events

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

From The Boston Globe

A Place For Slackers

August 7, 2006

"I HAVE COME to realize that my free time is worth a lot to me," Alan Beggerow said, turning his back on the work ethic in a New York Times article about men who don't have jobs.

A victim of steel plant layoffs, Beggerow now does what could be called ``nothing." He plays the piano, reads, and writes Westerns. He lives off savings, a loan against his house, and his wife. He says he could get a job, but he doesn't want work that is beneath him.

Denial shimmers around him like heat waves. He is 53. He is not rich. He will probably have to get a job to stay solvent.

Still, there is power in his one-sentence manifesto on free time. Commuters who race to cubicles face the notion that they are like ``young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life," as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in ``The Great Gatsby."

Parents know there is too much to do at work and home. But family-friendly change is slow. And there are no reality shows to sell the idea: no ``Pimp My Job" and no ``Who Wants to Marry a Stay-at-Home-Dad?"

So it's up to the public and private sectors to make some key changes:

Retrain workers. Laid-off workers need training programs that help them jump from the ships of the old economy and land in new-economy jobs. Former labor secretary Robert Reich has been ringing this bell for years. Such a program might have helped Beggerow find a job he could respect.

Help ex-convicts. Jail time is a damning spot on a job application. Job developers say former convicts can find work, but it takes effort. They need programs that teach skills -- from literacy to computers -- and provide bridges to specific employers with job openings.

Change the clock. Flexible schedules get tarred as a refuge for wimps and mothers of young children. But if flexibility were more available, many people would use it for medical appointments, personal affairs, or to go to the gym and ward off expensive health threats, such as obesity and diabetes.

Honor time off. Slacker, loafer, and idler are names that tar nonworkers. But vacations prove that breaks can be precious. In his book, ``Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America," Tom Lutz argues that slackers function as a ``celebration" and ``critique of our culture's twisty relation to work and to leisure."

In other words, the Beggerows serve a purpose. They make people look up and wonder if they are living by their own design or just absently chanting the 9-to-5 script.

The challenge is to find balance: to work without drowning in it; and to play, but not on the edge of bankruptcy.

``Get a job" is an American mantra. But sometimes it should give way to ``Get a life."

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