“Unemployed?”  “Jobless?”  How About “Surplus Labor?”
Taking the Stigma Out of Unemployment

So unemployment remains stubbornly high at 7.3%.

And the only reason it’s officially 7.3% vs. somewhere between 10% and 15% is because millions have stopped looking for work altogether.

While people try to figure out how to improve the labor market — a serious, ongoing policy discussion — how about at least changing the vocabulary?

My suggestion:  instead of calling people who are involuntarily out of the labor force “unemployed” or even “jobless,” I propose calling them “surplus workers” or “surplus labor.”

After all, with today’s ever-more sophisticated technology and high labor productivity, that’s what they really are, at least in the U.S.

How Much Labor Market “Slack?”

Economists talk a lot about “structural (un)employment” — the number of workers needed to keep the economy working at peak performance, with neither shortages (too much slack) nor inflationary pressures (too little).

But whatever structural unemployment really is, there’s no debate that it’s inexorably growing.

Just look at agriculture the last two centuries.

“2% Feeding 130%”

Two hundred years ago, 95% of the population fed the other 100%.


Barely 2% feed 100%.

In fact, given that the U.S. is a huge food exporter, it would be more accurate to say that 2% of Americans feed 130% of the U.S. population.

Quantity > Quality?

Due to that amazing leap in productivity, dramatically fewer people are needed to grow, process, and serve our food (backlash alert:  the rise of the “artisanal” movement is a rebellion against that — in particular, the homogeneity and mediocrity that is such a system’s biggest weakness).

So, if you’re a farmer today without a job, are you an “unemployed farmer?”

Or are you a “surplus (agricultural) worker?”

Advancing technology is roiling lots of fields (sorry) besides agriculture now.

Example:  sophisticated software can now sift through millions of documents — identifying key concepts and patterns — more efficiently than associate lawyers, making computerized “legal discovery” vastly more powerful and cost-effective than the old-fashioned, human kind.


Fewer lawyers, at least in the litigation departments of big law firms (Shakespeare would be heartbroken).

“Help Wanted” . . . in Silicon Valley

Yes, there is a shortage of computer programming jobs, and lots of Silicon Valley companies are hiring.

But the skill set(s) they’re looking for are quite narrow and specialized.

And realistically, such companies have openings for perhaps tens of thousands of workers — a fraction of the millions of Americans now jobless.

Of course our educational system should do better in math and science, and produce more engineers.

Ironically, though, precisely as technology advances, it begets more productivity and efficiency, with a concomitant drop in labor demand.

Translation:  there’s no such thing as an unemployed buggy whip maker.

P.S.:  And yes, I do have a proposal for bringing down the unemployment jobless rate:  create tax-free zones for new companies to operate in, then wean them of such “training wheels” once they’re up-to-speed.

Hey!  It worked for Amazon (its strategy of hyper-growth has been fueled by effectively being exempt from state sales tax).

I’d also create incentives for non-profit and volunteer jobs — like reading to/with kids in school.

See also, “21st Century Feudalism:  a Glimpse.”

About the author

Ross Kaplan has 19+ years experience selling real estate all over the Twin Cities. He is also a 12-time consecutive "Super Real Estate Agent," as determined by Mpls. - St. Paul Magazine and Twin Cities Business Magazine. Prior to becoming a Realtor, Ross was an attorney (corporate law), CPA, and entrepreneur. He holds an economics degree from Stanford.

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