Working in an era of turbulence

This Veteran’s Day (also called Armistice Day), I think it’s important to recall what I said last year at this time: that the conversations about and even by veterans in US politics are often detached from reality. In light of that, I think it’s useful to talk about an often overlooked group of current and former military service members, who we not only don’t use in combat but ideally hope to never need to call on. While admittedly far from the risks of combat, the members of the US military that manage our nuclear stockpiles shouldn’t be overlooked. Today of all days it seems worth asking whether our society is meeting their needs.

If Rachel Maddow’s still intriguing 2012 book on the emerging issues within the US military is to be believed, we aren’t successfully supporting those service members, and consequently are leaving our entire society vulnerable to accidents and other nuclear hazards. The problems noted by Maddow are various, but she focuses on one key issue for those that guard the nukes. New recruits assigned to managing nuclear weapons systems generally left the service at their first chance because, as one officer explained, “standing alert duty in missile silos is not considered ‘deployed,’ and ‘if you are not a ‘deployer,’ you do not get promoted.'”

In essence, as one 2008 military self-assessment noted, “We need a nuclear career field”. The lack of an established meritocratic ladder for the military members who control our nation’s vast (I’d argue too vast) reserves of weapons of mass destruction isn’t just a simple matter of not giving these service members stability and security – it impacts our military’s know-how. As Maddow reported, we as a country have multiple 1970s-era nuclear weapons that need a special chemical component (code name: Fogbank) replaced in its trigger. The unique chemical mixture was classified at the time of its development and due to the constant coming-and-going of nuclear technicians “no one today remembers the exact formula for making it.” Our institutional memory is shot and we’re paying the price for it.

Ultimately, this isn’t an issue that’s really restricted to the military, although the risky outcomes there are quite dramatic. As the Digital Arts Service Corps – one of the many smaller subsidiaries of the Americorps program – notes on their website that the new and by most measures modestly successful Americorps system is “not a career path” but “a one year commitment that you can re-up for a few years, but that’s about it”. The situation is even less rose-y if you realize that these subdivided parts within Americorps aren’t even directly connected to the work many volunteers do as a part of getting established in the public sector. They’re more analogous to the obamacare insurance exchanges – as sites where volunteers can connect with projects, rather than the institutions directly hiring them and ostensibly trying to pass down their knowledge about their position. The current system does work fairly well, but it has a weakness in how it fails to efficiently retain useful information.

Arguably, this failure to invest in these positions as even potentially long term positions is reflective of a growing trend that Al Jazeera covered at the beginning of this month. Jobs that last for a few years are something of a dying breed in the US, which is reflective of a number of factors, not least among them the comparative privilege of a well-educated workforce and the less wholesome growing disinterest within powerful corporations and even government to provide both job security and the possibility for at least mild advancement or accruing of seniority.

This common cause among military, public sector, and even private sector workers seems like the elephant in the room that few corporate media sources or powerful people will acknowledge. This experience of finding advancement out of positions that barely qualify as employment difficult seems to be widespread. Within the context of various minimum wage workers protesting for better working conditions, it’s even begun to crop up. Most recently, a protest last week among Walmart employees interested in addressing a number of concerns prioritized three demands: “a living wage, higher and more frequent merit raises, and clear path to career advancement free of favoritism and based on merit and not personality tests.”


In other words, yes underemployment is increasingly its own phenomenon, separate from unemployment, from here.

The spate of protests against a number of fast food franchises and the similar on-going rebukes of Walmart and other corporate stores have attracted most of their media attention with the focus firmly fixed on changes to the minimum wage or greater union rights (with the aim of then negotiating higher wages). That’s ultimately just one part of a larger problem – that most wages are stagnant and that accessing stable and secure employment is increasingly difficult.

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