Declining Workforce Participation: unemployed squirrels

My little germ of a thought for today is an parallel I see with declining workforce participation and our ancestor’s experience of no longer needing draught animal as a consequence of the industrial revolution and in particular the use of fossil fueled mechanical engines.

The image that occurred to me is that we are in the midst of a new revolution similar to the Industrial revolution but instead of dismissing the labor offering of animals, we’re dismissing the labor offerings of fellow humans.     Despite the large number of people unemployed and the larger number of working eligible people who are not seeking work, our economy seems to be running reasonably well enough that at least some economists are saying that our economy is growing.    We are holding our own with fewer people working.

I imagine back to the late 19th century when people began to realize that the economy was growing despite the reduction of horses in the streets.    A century and a half later, we don’t miss having to share our streets with horses (donkeys, mules, oxen, etc) pulling barely operational carts or carriages.    Over that time, the population of these creatures have declined.  This is certainly true for the number of such creatures kept by humans for economic purposes.    Compared to the 19th century, our economy doesn’t need as many draught animals.

More recently there has a resurgent appreciation for animal employment in the form of guide dogs, or other service animals who have proven very valuable for serving people with certain disabilities or illnesses.    We have found some natural traits of animals that when trained can perform functions that are out of reach of even modern technology.   We have not completely eliminated our need for employing animals.   Although they don’t count in the employment numbers, we probably should include them as part of the work force.    They are a part of the economy.

In the past, we employed a wider variety of animals to contribute to the economy of the times.   Most of these animals were large and muscular.   As mentioned above, these animals became replaced by smaller but more powerful and more enduring mechanical engines.    But we also used smaller animals for various functions including entertainment in the form of trained animals for certain events where the entertainment was seeing the animal perform the usually human-like behavior.    The entertainment market has displaced these animals with far more entertaining high tech solutions of endless supply of videos or interactive games including very engaging special effects.

No longer needed for economy, we reduced the interest in raising and maintaining these animals for economic purposes.    Certainly we still invest in maintaining these animals for preservation purposes (nature preserves, zoological parks, etc) or for affection purposes (hobby farms or ranches).   The animals haven’t disappeared from the face of the earth.  They just disappeared from the everyday commercial experience.

So what does this have to do with squirrels?   Well, actually this is old complaint of mine having nothing to do with this topic.   My complaint is that twice a year I have to clean my gutters which due to the height of the house and slope of the yard is enough of a challenge that I am inclined to hire someone to come out to do it for about 200-300 dollars a year.    Meanwhile, my yard is part of a wooded stretch with no shortage of squirrels (and crows, by the way) where occasionally I spot either in my gutters flipping debris looking for food.

My complaint is why can’t I hire these animals to clean my gutters?   Their bodies appear to be fully capable of lifting leaves and small twigs from a gutter and dropping them over the side.   They have no problem reaching the heights with a high assurance of safety without need for safety ropes, ladders, comrades steadying the ladders or ropes, etc.   Their bodies are almost the perfect size for gutters.    They could spend a few moments each day just flicking out a couple leaves a day and fully keep up with the challenge of keeping the gutters clear before the next heavy rain.

There is an analogy of these animals with the work-eligible (able bodied and capable) people who are no longer participating in the work force.   There is a labor force participation issue with animals.   What do I need to do to encourage squirrels or crows to help out with my gutters?   Even one tenth of what I pay humans for the task (20-30 dollars a year) would be a fortune when converted to material (food or shelter) benefits for the animals.   At this starting offer, I have a lot of room to negotiate.

As I thought about this example, I imagined a second example that is a common problem.  Many households have both cats and dogs living in the house.   Due to modern life, the house is vacant of humans for most of the day.   The dog would appreciate an opportunity to go on a walk on leash.  In some cases, houses may have special cat doors so they can venture outside when they wish because we trust their independence to come back.

Assume the dog is well behaved so as to never pull on the leash.   My question is why can’t I employ the cat to take the dog out for walk once in a while?    I have no doubt the cat is intelligent enough to recognize the clues that a dog would like to take a walk.   So why not grab the leash and walk the dog?    I’d gladly come up with some accommodation for opening doors and connecting the leash if only there was a way to get the cat on the job.

Cats and dogs are domesticated animals.   Horses, mules, and oxen were also domesticated.  It is conceivable to get them to do work and give the appearance that they don’t object too terribly much to the tasks.    The counter argument may be that even the productive horses or mules will not do work unsupervised.   Even though the animal cooperated, it needed a human around to guide is labor.   They generally would not take the initiative to do even a daily repeated chore.   From limited experience with animals, I will grant that horses will take initiative in anticipation of the owner’s needs.  But horses are by most accounts amazing animals.

Squirrels and crows are rarely domesticated, or even trained.   And yet they offer an excellent body form to handle the task of cleaning gutters.   They can do the work.  The effort is not unnatural in terms of movement or exertion.   There is room to barter for a compensation to make it worth their while.

We don’t employ squirrels or crows to clean our gutters.   If don’t want to it ourselves we install clever covers that claim to catch water but not debris.   A claim I don’t buy because one my gutters are subject to very small but still accumulating debris.   Also, I don’t need a gutter for a slow gentle rainfall usually advertised where the water gently slides into the opening.    I most want a gutter to catch the vicious downpour that results in serious waterfalls that do damage.   The gutter guards only give the peace of mind of having an excuse not to clean the gutters, but fail to provide gutter utility when it is most needed.

Encouragingly, there are robotic options being introduced such as iRobot’s Looj.   At first glance, these appear to do the job that I’d wish I could get the crows or squirrels to do.   But then I realize the animals would still be superior.   For one thing I still need to climb a ladder to place the robot in the gutter.    If the robot gets stuck or breaks down, I’d have to move the ladder to fetch the stuck robot.  So this option requires from me the same services that I’m trying to completely avoid.

As far as I can tell, the robot doesn’t have any sense of whether it is doing a good job: it is just blinding flinging its appendages and it is hoped this will get the job done.   It won’t seek out and fetch a stray leaf at the far end of the gutter that will eventually be carried to clog the downspout during a rain.   I think the animal approach at least offers the potential of much more satisfying job performance.

I am no animal person.   As far as I know, I have not heard even experts at handling animals train a crow or a squirrel to clean a gutter.     If this were possible, we would have figured it out centuries ago when we were very clever about getting animals to do work for us.

My point for this post is to marvel at this untapped labor force of bodies that are perfect for a particular task that has real economic value even today.    They can do get the job done using natural movements and exertion demands and do it with almost perfect safely in terms of risks to their bodies.   On the other hand, I’m open to negotiation to provide them some kind of compensation that will certainly make the effort worth their bother.    And yet we fail to realize this economic arrangement.  I admit that I really haven’t made that much effort try to negotiate with squirrels or crows but I also haven’t heard of any reports where this kind of routine chore has been successfully realized by anyone.

The situation with my gutters is hopeless.   I clean them when the weather is nice but inevitably the next downpour sends water cascading over the edge inevitably because something has managed to clog the downspout again.   I need a service to check the gutter daily so that it is always ready for the next downpour.   Until I find a cooperative squirrel or crow, I might as well just take the gutter down entirely.

This post actually is not about the gutter problem.  Instead it is about the real problem of declining workforce participation within one of the most prosperous economies on the planet.   There are a lot of able bodies people often with very unique capabilities to offer that can provide valuable services.

This group includes a minority of people who are seeking work.   We count them as the unemployed and they are available for negotiation to get to work.   A different post is needed to discuss the structural impediments preventing this negotiation from happening.   My observation for this post is the much larger population of individuals are well qualified for gainful economic engagement but are opting out entirely.

Perhaps one explanation of the non-participating workforce is that the economy simply doesn’t need their inherent aptitudes.   They are like the plight of draught animals in the late 19th century.   Eventually they will age out of the eligibility for work category.

Another explanation may be like the squirrels and crows not applying for my job opening of cleaning my gutters.    Not only are they not interested, but they have no reason to believe there is any point to even discussing the opportunity.    I think this group is fairly large.   There is a large group of people who are not participating in the workforce because they don’t see any benefit.   The mystery to me is why don’t they see the benefit of economic participation?

Actually I’m mildly mystified by why animals don’t more frequently volunteer to enter economic arrangements with us.   Certainly they are aware of how much we are doing to transform the landscape and their environment.   While many animals have legitimate grievances about our changes making their lives worse, that doesn’t appear to be the case for urban squirrels or crows.   Not only have they benefited but it is at least plausible that they can get even more benefits by entering some form of economic contract.

That vision of mutual reward for economic arrangement is too much to expect from animals.   But certainly a lack of this vision does not explain why humans are opting to not participate economically.   Subtract from this group who enjoy widely recognized wealthy lifestyles.   I suspect the remaining group to be very significant in number.  This group would benefit from some additional cash flow from some form of economic activity.   They may be able to afford more gas to put more miles on their cars.  They may be able to subscribe to more extensive video or mobile-phone services.   They may be able upgrade their living space.    They choose to not work despite the opportunities for real benefits.

The common answer is that they are discouraged workers.    I don’t think this answer is very useful.   All it says is that these people have tried to find work and failed to find something the suits them.    It is almost by definition that a eligible worker who declines to participate in work declines because he is discouraged there is nothing out there for him.   The discouragement has the connotation of being depressed, but it need not be depressing.   The discouragement may simply be a positive self realization of irrelevance of the economic opportunities.

Probably it is the same self realization that crows and squirrels have when they ignore their economic opportunity to negotiate with me to clean out my gutters.

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