Today’s distress is blocking the economy of tomorrow

With half of all recent college grads unable to find suitable work, how can cities justify keeping jobs out? Photo: ϟnapshot 19/Flickr.

If you still know anybody who thinks the economy is in “recovery,” just lay this one single statistic on them: one in two recent U.S. college graduates today is unemployed or underemployed, unable to find work in his or her chosen field.

“Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs – waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example – and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans,” writes the AP.

Surely, when the world’s leading system of higher education — serving the youth of Long Island or the San Fernando Valley while also attracting young strivers from Beijing, Mumbai and Mexico City — leaves its accredited graduates with little chance to achieve that cubicle job of their dreams (such dreams!), then our economy has failed in its most fundamental promise.

Now, we all know that this promise was empty in many ways. Working for a big corporation might have made you wealthy, but it was never going to make you healthy or wise.

And after the collapse of 2008, it’s become pretty clear that the whole soul-sucking, career-grubbing game is over anyway. So it may be just as well that we could be looking at a future economy without traditional jobs. But try telling that to a 22-year old who has to start making payments on $29,000 in student loans, the national average.

Meanwhile, middle aged and older people are also coping with the economy’s broken promises to them: lost jobs, lost homes, lost retirement.

Likewise, cash-strapped cities around the country are facing the same issue. If all the corporations are slimming down or just leaving town, then how can city hall continue to bring in enough tax revenues to pay for public services? And with those corporate jobs gone, how will residents earn a living?

Our cities have relied on outside companies for so long that we’ve forgotten any other way to live.

You can keep your damn jobs

So what happens, in this time of economic starvation, when one of those remaining corporate businesses wants to buck the trend, and instead of leaving town, actually wants to come in?

The citizens of Totnes, Transition Town Number One, are now facing just this issue as Costa Coffee, the UK’s largest java chain, has applied to open a store in the historic center of this progressive and upscale town in southwestern England. The local Transition group is leading the charge to keep Costa out, arguing that Totnes already has about thirty places in town serving coffee and tea. An anti-Costa petition has garnered nearly 4,000 signatures so far, an impressive showing for a town of only 7,500.

In May, Totnes Town Council’s planning committee unamimously rejected Costa’s bid “on the grounds of impact on vitality and viability of the retail function of the town center and as it will not reflect the individuality of the town center.”

And with an old-timey respect for downtime that surely hasn’t been seen in any American local government for decades, the Totnes council group excoriated Costa, which wanted to operate from 6:30 am to 8 pm, for  wanting to stay open too long.

“The proposed hours of opening are antisocial. They are dissimilar to any other business in the area and will create a very undesirable precedent, and will seriously affect the health and well being of residents in the immediate locality.”

You tell ’em how it is, Honorable Councillors.

Andrew Simms of the New Economy Foundation summed up the deeper problem with chain stores in an interview on “Costa-gate” with Totnes resident and Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins:

Chain stores, of whatever variety, whether they are selling mobile phones, or whether they are selling coffee, or whether they are selling doughy torpedo-shaped sandwiches, are a way of doing business that carries with them a particular DNA for the society and the local economy which grows up around them…They are interested in one thing, and that is sucking in consumer spending to be extracted from the local economy, shuffled off to head office to pay for centralized logistics, and the expectations of remote, disinterested investors in the City [of London]. It is an extractive industry.

Business friendly

Speaking of local government, I was just elected to city council here in Staunton, Virginia, a town about three times bigger than Totnes. I’ll be sworn in on July 2.

My six future fellow councilmen and councilwomen are thoughtful and generally progressive. But I can’t imagine any of them arguing to keep out a corporate chain business because their hours are too long. That’s just not the American way.

The rub is, I believe that our whole city council agrees with me that local businesses are preferable to chains. And there’s plenty of support among downtown merchants and residents across the city for Buying Local.

But there are also lots of residents who think nothing of patronizing chains on a regular basis and who want the city to recruit more corporate businesses, not keep them out.

When it comes to chain stores, cities like mine find much to love:

  • Residents “want better shopping” and resent having to drive to other cities to get their favorite brands. In a small town or small city, it’s a sign of civic pride to say “We now have our own [insert famous brand here].”
  • With local budgets for schools, fire, police and other services cut every year, local government needs the tax revenue from local shops and chains alike. They just want tax money and aren’t too picky about the source, as long as it’s legal. After all, if the city brings in less tax revenue from businesses, then they’ll have to make it up by taxing homeowners more just to keep the potholes filled. So city hall wants to maximize the number of businesses in the city, rather than keeping some businesses out.
  • Many citizens view chains as not just inevitable but also preferable to mom-and-pop shops, which can have higher prices, inconsistent hours, quirky customer service and uneven quality. A common perception is that chains offer better value and more reliable service. If the staff are grumpy, at a chain they’ll keep it to themselves.

We need help now, not next year

The deeper arguments against chain stores are very compelling if you’re a long-term systems thinker like the folks at the American Independent Business Alliance who support local business fighting chains across the U.S.

But how do you convince everybody in town who’s just looking at the immediate impact and saying “Boy, the economy sure is tough right now. We need more jobs and and more tax revenues in this town. Thank goodness such a well known brand has chosen our city. What idiot would want to scare them away?”

What idiot indeed.

Especially when you consider that, if the city rejected a chain store, the same store would most likely just relocate right outside the city limits. So they’d still compete with downtown businesses, but now the taxes would go to another jurisdiction. For the city, that would be a lose-lose.

How do you tell that 22-year-old college grad with nearly $30,000 in student loan debt and no hope of a cubicle job that city council wants to keep a new Starbucks from opening up in town?

If the future is all about local food and food processing, local small manufactures and even local media and local entertainment, that future can sometimes seem far off today. We need to build a bridge from today’s damaged economy, with all its broken promises, to the healthier local economy of tomorrow. At the same time, we need to take care of those who are suffering right now.

It won’t be easy though.

For my part, I prefer a local coffee shop for the good vibe. And I know that a local business circulates dollars in the area’s economy many times more than a chain store.

But that 22-year old is probably more interested in the higher pay and health insurance she can get at Starbucks.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. John Andersen says

    The key is to gravitate toward people who understand the reasons to support locally owned, mom & pop stores. Don’t worry about the people who don’t. As those who get it grow in numbers, their influence will also grow.

    Trying to teach people and expect them to change is going to lead to frustration.

    • Auntiegrav says

      Spoken like someone who lives in Portland. Or Madison.
      MUCH easier said than done when one lives in the Red Zones. In much of the U.S., there ARE no people who support locally owned (except, of course, the Chamber of Commerce..but they only support local business as long as it means they themselves get to buy boats and cars and mansions full of stuff from chain stores and China).
      OTOH: I completely agree with you, John. I just wish it were as simple. As those who get it grow in numbers and visibility, they will become targets, just as raw dairy is a target and open government/campaign disclosure proponents are targets. They need to realize this in fact and preparations.
      Also: it seems that the more desperate the area is, the more likely they will reach for any solution to their survival: even the local ones.

      • says

        I do agree that we can’t just leave out the Red State folks. It’s great if you’re surrounded by Sierra Club members and people who shop at Whole Foods, but if you live in most of America it’s not like that. People are having to balance different, competing, goods, and while there may be no sympathy for buying local or some sympathy for it, the corporate chain economy still enjoys lots of support. As it should, because as Auntigrav pointed out in his other post, it still does certain things very well. As we try to give them more business and support them through community advocacy, we should also encourage our local businesses to step up their game too.

  2. Auntiegrav says

    Congratulations, Eric!

    This is one of your best articles. Why do I say that? Because it makes me feel like crap. I’m a hypocrite. As much as I tell people to shop local and buy local, I too often take the convenient or cheaper route of the chains. There are as many reasons as there are products, as I have a very broad base of things I need to purchase to support my customers and my farm. Unfortunately, the quest to cut cost all too often is our deciding factor in what we buy.
    I can’t shop at the closest hardware store because the owner/operator is a jerk, but I go to the next closest ones when I remember to do so. Unfortunately, the things I buy at the chain stores will never be stocked in the local stores (too costly to stock, no demand, too technically specific).
    I buy online also, mostly on eBay. I don’t know how to consider the online purchases (buying into someone else’s personal “local”) fits the Transition world we are striving for, though.
    I guess another thing that bothers me is the type of people I have come into contact with who support the Transition movement, as great as they are in motivation they are usually not all there in reality and competence. There are WAYYYYYY too many that are off the deep end with desire for helping the world and who have no skills to do so. This usually results in a demand on my skills or tools for some reason or another. I love to help, but this takes away from my own family and time. The demand is always lopsided. Somewhere, we need to build a bridge between the self-sufficiency survivalists and the transition socialists, so that there are more hands-on skills available as a community, rather than those skills being scattered to the boonies trying to avoid the coming Crash.
    I am too often the only person that transition people can find to solve a particular problem (and I’m not always that good at it). This is truly where our test and college oriented education system has completely failed the people of this country. Not only do the youth entering college not need their stinking jobs, they don’t need the distractions of the marketplace which demands they have jobs and money. Most of the things we could do to build local economies (butcher shops, bakeries, small dairies) have been made illegal or nearly impossible to start legally, by the corporate chain system (which includes most of our government).
    This is why it is important to bridge the survivalists and the transition town ideas: the only way forward seems to be a disruption of the System of systems, so that relocalization can happen. In order for that to take place, someone has to survive the disruption, but afterward, we don’t want them to avoid each other.

    • says

      Absolutely, I’ve thought the same for a while, that we need to bridge the cultural gap between the survivalist/preppers, who tend to have skills and tools that are very useful, with the Transitioners, who tend to have enthusiasm and ideas and often, a surprising affinity for physical and hand work, given that so many of them are cubicle refugees (as I am). Lindsay just wrote about a local food defense group we attended last week at Polyface Farms with a distinctly Tea Party vibe — but that’s because, along with the citified gardeners, there were also real farmers there. As long as we stayed away from national politics — who really needs to know your position on Obamacare if you just want to legalize sales of raw milk — we seemed to do fine. Maybe that’s the key, to avoid getting caught up in the media-driven polemics of the day, and just stick to practical local issues.

  3. says

    Before we all get carried away by the endless pontificating on the need for jobs, (graduate or otherwise) we should consider what a job is: I work and expend energy, somebody pays me, I take that money and use it to buy the results of someone else’s energy output. That’s the work-pay equation, simple huh?, well not quite. The problem is the energy part. Industrial jobs (and all our jobs, without exception, are linked to energy-consuming industry) in a modern context go back to 1769 when Trevithick invented the viable steam engine, and humanity hit the jackpot! We spent the next 250 years getting hold of cheap coal oil and gas, burning it and deluding ourselves that it was employment. Cheap fossil fuel energy gave us the means to build machines and they did our ‘work’, all we’ve done is look after them. Not very flattering to humanity, but you can’t build a motorway with a pick and shovel.
    However remote, ‘cubicle jobs’ are directly linked to (cheap) core energy input. If that energy input is in decline, then the ‘cubicle jobs’ will decline at the same rate. A PhD in economics won’t buy you cheap food when food gets really scarce.
    Cheap carbon based energy input has been the driving force of world commerce, and by definition our employment. Before the industrial revolution, you worked to produce the food you ate, muscle input equaled food/energy output. If food output fell, so did the population. Then we started burning cheap coal oil and gas in machines, which magnified our output exponentially.
    Our machines employed us to produce endless ‘stuff’ and endless supplies of food. The more food we had, the more our population expanded; to employ them, our machines ploughed more land to grow more food and dig more resources out of the ground to build more machines to create more jobs. And so on. This has allowed 80 million new people arrive every year, but we have to burn more fuel to feed and employ them.
    We were told that ‘growth’ was infinite. Just about now, armies of unemployed graduates are telling us that it wasn’t. The ‘cubicle jobs’ are the stuff of fantasy.
    This is why jobs are vanishing. Forget ‘alternatives and renewables’ that’s just political spin to hide the truth about our future. Most of us don’t have one.

  4. Concerned says

    Mr. Curren. Thank you for this great article, and for thinking. I really liked this article and I agree, we need to help those suffering now and bridge the gap. It’s great that you have co=founded a transition town, and important. Congratulations on being elected to City Council. You are in a position to hopefully make a difference and give voice to reason. It’s a little amazing to me all this talk about jobs, when shouldn’t we be, afterall, talking about transitioning and what it’s going to mean for all of us? And also bridging the gap. We all, along with these young people, have to come to terms with the fact things are changing. My hope is that citizens find meaningful work eventually, possibly in ethanol production, etc. Unlike NJP1, I know there is hope, if we start to think differently and accept that we must head in a different direction. Ghandi once said, When the people lead, leaders will follow. Isn’t time that many of us, and there are many, ask for the changes we know we need. We can put a space shuttle up, we can do what we need to do. Thanks again.

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