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Job Insecurity: It's the Disease of the 21st Century -- And It's Killing Us

A massive, Xanax-fueled public health crisis driven by chronic employment worry is headed our way.

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“In publishing, we were always scrapping and scratching,” says Warde. “But it was nothing like what happened leading up to and during the financial crisis.” Burdened by falling ad revenues and rising printing costs, his magazine folded soon after the crash. “Before, I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I could pay my rent. That’s all changed.”

Warde took a job as a blueberry grower for neighbors who own a small farm. It’s hard work, but he has enjoyed many of the challenges. Uncertainty is his new reality. “There are a lot of things that could end my job,” Warde says. “Bad weather, conflicts with the landlord over water. You just don’t know.”

Warde also has to contend with health worries. The health insurance he gets now through the VA, to which he is entitled because his current income renders him officially “indigent," is fraught with a bureaucracy that keeps him from getting the care he needs. “I’ve had two melanomas removed in the past, but I haven’t seen a dermatologist for four years. I have rashes on my skin and I constantly worry.”

He also worries about his daughter, a medical student who is working her way through school. “She’s a good sport, but it feels awful that I can’t help her more.”

If Warde loses his current job, the local economy of San Luis Obispo County, Calif. doesn’t have much to offer. The more secure government jobs have been eliminated. “There’s a university, and a prison, that’s about it,” he says. He tries to stay optimistic. “I don’t want to sit here and feel sorry for myself. I focus on networking, on doing what I can today. I’m lucky to have supportive friends.”

When you don’t know whether your job will be around next year, or even next week, how do you plan for the future? What happens to dreams like buying a home? Saving for college? Retirement? In the face of job insecurity, thoughts of any of these things bring instant panic instead of hopeful planning.

Unlike losing a job, the fear of losing the job you have is not a discrete, socially visible event. Your course of action isn’t clear because you don’t know whether or how the job loss will occur. Things like unemployment insurance weren’t meant for your situation. There’s no intervention mechanism. You may become paranoid at work – and for good reason. Some managers have been known to try to get employees to quit so that they don’t have to pay for unemployment insurance. The collegial feeling among workers can curdle into cut-throat competition.

There’s no question that job insecurity is eroding our quality of life. And its prolonged effects can lead to coronary heart disease and even cancer.

The apologists for unbridled capitalism tell us that employers need maximum flexibility to hire and fire so that wealth can be created for all. In the face of ever-increasing income inequality, that line doesn’t play. And the public health costs of the New Insecurity -- which will fall on everyone -- are not factored into the old equation.

Most Americans are prepared to work hard for a living, but is premature death our only reward? The worst effects of pervasive job insecurity—on health, family, society—take time to manifest. Some of the signs are just now becoming visible. If this constant assault on our well-being goes on much longer, its effects may linger for decades.  We're on a dangerous path -- and changing it should be a national priority.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of 'Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.' Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

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