Suicides and the collapse of American mall culture


We drove up the road to the big city mall this week. The parking lot was half empty when we got there. Inside, there weren’t a lot of people carrying bags. Window shoppers mostly, and not affluent. We talked to a clerk who said he graduated university a year ago. Yet here he was working in a mall store. He’s not alone.

The Globe and Mail reports that over the past decade graduates face increasing unemployment, are less able to find work in their chosen fields, and when they do, find that average salaries have declined. Meanwhile, companies complain that schools aren’t doing enough to train students for the workforce. But since 1993 the levels of investment in, and training of, employees by Canadian companies has fallen by 40 percent. Something’s clearly going on.

It now takes a four-year university education to get a starter job in the current economy. Graduates from lower income families start out with large student debts, often over $60,000. But it’s a lot worse for high school graduates, and even worse for high school dropouts.

It’s clear that this new economy is not like our parents’ old economy. This economy is tied directly to the global economy. Manufacturing has relocated to places where labour costs are lowest. On top of that, AI—artificial intelligence—and IT is eliminating labour costs and production jobs altogether. Worldwide.

Closer to home this corner of New Brunswick was once a manufacturing hub with literally dozens of active production facilities making everything from boats to cotton fabric to soap. Today there are two left: a candy factory and a particle-board plant. Neither is in growth mode, and job opportunities are scarce. Neither has the capacity to take in the numbers of local graduates looking for jobs.

The trickle down effect is obvious. Local small town economies are stagnating. There’s little growth, and few new businesses. Downtown cores are dying an excruciatingly slow death as multinational box stores and fast food chains chase ever-fewer customers. Still, the coffee shops are doing well, so everything must be fine, right? This is what a mature economy looks like, and it’s happening all across North America.

With a stagnating economy comes stagnating upward mobility. Kids graduating today know they may never rise above their parents’ social or economic status. The Canadian-American myth of a classless society is rapidly fading. A new, visible class structure is appearing. Those that have, pass it on to their kids. Those that don’t, can’t.

Anyone following courthouse news sees the pattern. The same income groups are over-represented. The same ethnic groups, the same families. Generational poverty is the new norm. Alcohol, drug and family abuse, and crime are rising in direct proportion to the lack of opportunities.

Lest anyone think that we’ve reached the bottom of this trend, think again. A couple of months ago CIBC bank announced it was firing 130 employees and transferring their jobs to India. There was an immediate backlash. Customers quit the bank in droves. Meanwhile, CIBC’s profits were up 40 percent over the year before with earnings of $1.4 billion, rewarding its CEO, Victor Dodig, with an $8.5 million salary. Talk about a tone-deaf. But CIBC is not alone. Multinational companies are serious about the bottom line.

The bottom line for workers is not good. Many families are going from two incomes to three or four as breadwinners take on extra part-time work, or back to one-income as one of the breadwinners loses a job, often the man of the house.

In the U.S. this is taking a toll. White middle-aged men are committing suicide in record numbers. The reason is clear. Men garner self-worth from work and their ability to support their families. Without work, they lose their dignity and slide into depression. Without the possibility of employment, many take the ultimate way out.

With an American economy built on consumer spending, it isn’t hard to see the ending. Without money there are no customers, without customers there are no shops, and without shopping malls there’s only the internet, big name brands and global distributors.

New Brunswick understands economic stagnation better than the rest of Canada. Resource extraction will save us for a while. But if the broader world economy starts slowing like it has here, it’s going to be a bumpy ride down. At least until another major war kicks it back into high gear.

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