Unemployment, rats and brains

A soup kitchen in Chicago, supposedly sponsored by Al Capone. Question: will there be enough gangsters left in the country to sponsor needed soup kitchens if we’re all forced to go to involuntary part-time?

First, where have I been? Lots happening in the world (especially on topics of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, et al). I will address.  But today’s news was the US unemployment figures, proudly trumpeted everywhere–the economy created a cool 162,000 jobs last month! Huzzah! True, it takes 150 thousand just to keep even with population growth, but expectations were mixed. so Huzzah!

Except there are a couple of flies in the ointment. First, the 12,000 ‘extra’ jobs somehow created a fall in unemployment from 7.5 to 7.4. Mathematically, that isn’t possible, and as usual, it took a bit of time for someone to come forward and admit that the .1% fall in unemployment was about more people dropping out of the workforce (as in they’ve stopped looking). But for a brief time, Huffington Post and other media outlets admitted an ugly truth before yanking the employment story altogether.  You can see the story here if it hasn’t been irretrievably buried already. Not only was the job report for July kind of meh; a significant number of the jobs created in July are part-time. And this is not a one-off. Thanks to Tyler Durden teasing out the numbers over at Zerohedge, we now know that some 77% of the jobs that have been created in 2013 are part-time. In fact, it’s even worse than that–there’s been a swapping out of fulltime positions for part-time positions for much of the year that has been masked by the creation of those half-jobs. This is actually consistent with reports from friends, many of whom are being involuntarily ‘converted’ to part time.

That isn’t the narrative that supporters of the White House want to leave you with, of course–HP replaced its downer articles with a chirpy ‘good but not good enough’ piece by MSNBC’s Jared Bernstein. We’re in an employment crisis that rivals that of the 1930’s, and the best our leaders can do is argue over defunding Obamacare.

Which brings me to rats and brains. I know, hard to figure out the connection, but let me try here. I’m a longtime fan of NPR’s Radiolab program. Radiolab is a science program for people who’ve been fine arts majors too long, but it’s full of twists and turns and the hosts make science accessible. This week’s episode is about blood–specifically about the mysteries of blood and the long history of researchers trying to plumb its mysteries. One of the pieces that was of interest involved the work of Dr. Saul Villeda, a researcher at UCSF with his own lab. Their lab homepage lays out their mission (in part) this way:  Our lab is interested in understanding what drives regenerative and cognitive impairments in the aging brain, and moreover how the effects of aging can be reversed in the old brain.

So here’s the research you need to know about: Dr. Villeda had discovered that when confronted with the trauma of being in water (apparently a big deal for the rodent set), young rats exposed to the same environment and with the same escape routes eventually memorize them–they can escape the water trap relatively quickly after a few exposures. But older rats cannot–they face each dunking as if encountering it for a first time, and struggle through trial and error to find the escape route.

Here’s a question: what defines an ‘old’ lab rat? How does it correlate with human chronological aging? The Radiolab hosts made light-hearted jokes about co-host Robert Krulwich frequently losing his keys, but are people above a certain age closed out of re-learning tasks? The US has a very large number of fifty-somethings who’ve been part-timed. Are they going to be able to find their way in a profoundly different employment environment?

Our economy is undergoing a wrenching change in terms of what we call employment and work environments. Many of the chronically unemployed are people on the cusp of retirement who now have to fill another five to ten years doing something profoundly different from what they had been doing professionally for most of their working lives. In NPR’s reporting on the Jobs Report, one commentator kept coming back to the idea of education as a panacea for resolving our unemployment problem. Beyond the fact that educated people are also unemployed, there is a real question of how adept we uber-primates are at starting from scratch in our working lives once we’ve passed the five decade mark.

Thoughts like this have been bothering me a good deal lately. I’m hoping we’re all able to find work before we’re food for the worms. But why aren’t people protesting in the streets as is the case in Spain and Greece?

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