A friend and business associate decided to quit. He had a small business, part of the dying breed of the self-employed.
He wasn't alone. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the self-employed peaked in 2006 with 16.6 million. By 2011, it had declined by 2.1 million. It's now hovering at the lowest levels in 25 years. We self-employed are becoming lonely.
One of the deep wounds of the Great Recession is a loss of people in their own businesses. These enterprises may not employ many, but statistics demonstrate the majority of recent job losses have occurred in this sector. This decline stands in stark contrast to the typical trend during an economic slump when the self-employed tend to increase.
But unlike other recessions, small companies are not leading the charge back into recovery. Money and financing remains tight, but more so, optimism is at a premium. Despite a smattering of good economic news, most economists expect uninspiring growth in this new year.
Uncertainty blankets our Valley; motivation is fleeting. When my friend quit, no one else was in line to take his place.
Census Bureau statistics show a sharp decline in start-up businesses, down 17% from a few years ago and the fewest on record that began in 1977. Locally, the economy remains less vibrant, opportunities limited. You can only "tighten your belt" for so long. The will to hang on is disappearing.
As my friend said, "It's just not worth it anymore." And he's right. Not only is there a loss of entrepreneurial spirit, I sense a feeling of being alone.
What does it mean to be self-employed? I used to take comfort in the dozens of small family farmers around our land. Now I drive down our street and see vacant fields. What I believed was eternal had shifted.
Equally as significant, the landscape of small- and medium-sized towns in our Valley has changed. The recession wasn't the cause, the trend had been tracking downward for decades; the current economic woes simply sped up the process.
The local pharmacy. The mom-and-pop grocery store. The auto parts or repair shops. The corner diners and small-town hamburger joints. These good neighbors provided a visible meaning of what being self-employed embodied. (A precious few of these have somehow survived and I'm amazed.)
Do I sound nostalgic, longing for the good old days when everyone knew your name? I think I accept change. What I worry about is the loss of a generation during this recession. The prolonged downturn results in a broken link; there is no one around to take over and renew.
While I do believe we will recover, albeit very slowly, we are losing a type of institutional memory: knowledge held by a group of how to get things done. Typically, information is passed down from generation to generation, mentor to student. The transmission may be formal or informal, most often by stories and memories. It's a collaboration to preserve a way of life.
It forms a core of self-definition. These are the memories and lessons transferred from one era to another. This is how we do it in the Valley. It may not work in other places, but it's how we do it -- our own stamp of culture. It's a culture of sharing, like the specialized knowledge of the farmer who knew the hardpan pocket on the farm.
True, new technologies have rendered some jobs and businesses obsolete -- working on a car's carburetor is less vital today than 20 years ago. But the knowledge of process: the how and why is priceless. Machines and technology have increased our productivity immensely, but someplace in the equation, human capital still matters.
Even with the new technologies of auto repair and the computers to analyze problems, the sound of a car still plays a role in diagnosis. Who now teaches the young mechanic the art of listening and the rich information of sound?
An older relative lost her local pharmacist when it closed. She then started getting her prescriptions filled via mail order. The medications were fine; she saves some money. But she misses talking to other customers. They were part of a cultural community who grew old together. Places and their people do matter.
In the public sector, the loss of memory may not be felt for years. Consider the drastic cutbacks in public education and administrators we have lost. The assistant principal may be an endangered species, the counselor cut out, district office positions vanish. These were all training grounds for the next wave of principals. So where do these future leaders learn to lead? On the job?
So my friend who has quit -- he is not a failure. Nor is he just a victim of the times. He has a back-up plan and will be fine. What I'll miss is our conversations and the lost insight from his point of view -- lessons I will never learn. I'll be less of a person for it.
Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people. E-mail him at email@example.com.