For centuries humans have been defined, and have defined themselves, by their craft, their trade, their profession (their job). When not sleeping or eating, we spend most of our time on the job. Most of us spend further precious time getting to the workplace. We have distant relatives or friends of friends about whom we know almost nothing except “what they do” (and ancestors we identify by what they did). A great-grandfather owned a feed store in Iowa. A quality-control guy where you work has a friend who is a plumber, whose brother the electrician has a daughter in your daughter’s grade-school class. Three guys in a tub will never be remembered as Pete, Tom, and John, but will be immortalized as a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker. “Who lives in that house across the street? Joe Smith. Oh, you mean who is he? He works in the prosecutor’s office.” Our jobs and careers are, to the outside world, the essence of our single-sentence biographies and, one day, the first paragraph of our obituaries.
Self-worth, productivity, the psychology of being a useful citizen . . . a very powerful battery of attributes is wrapped up in this business of “having a job.” I leave it to the psychologists and sociologists to describe these things in clinical and historical detail. But we all have a visceral understanding of both the individual and societal meaning of being defined by what we do. We all know—from direct observation or literature or drama or, perish the thought, personal experience—what happens to the psyche of someone who believes he or she is (so much irony to this next word, in context here) obsolete. For someone who is, let’s say, 60 years old and whose once-revered or at least respected craft suddenly and literally is obsolete . . . the psychological impact has to be devastating for all but a tiny minority with superhuman resilience.
So a job is a massively important thing to a human being, even without mentioning the more pragmatic essence of what employment is about. If you think the psychology of being employed seems too far afield for this discussion (I obviously don’t see it that way), let’s have a look at the more pragmatic view of why employment statistics always have been a prime cause of smiles or frowns in venues all the way from your local haberdashery to the White House.
Take a modest annual income (by American standards), and multiply it by the number of years in the workplace. Even the person earning that modest income usually is amazed at the cumulative size of his or her greatest fiscal asset. What comprises a solidly middle-class income these days? Let’s say a $50,000 annual income as averaged across a 40-year career. That person on retirement day might well reflect that he earned two million dollars in his lifetime. He might then glance at the compound interest charts, and say, “Let’s have a re-do.” My point is not to preach thrift (though that is never a bad idea), but to note the kind of individual socioeconomic power many millions of Americans possessed across the 20th Century. Let’s see: Three square meals a day, a solid roof overhead, a car in the driveway, a means to raise a family, a few toys, an occasional vacation—not to mention a path to achievement and pride and identity. What more could a person ask?
That’s the individual view. A figurative satellite camera image of employment’s socioeconomic impact is even more stunning. Henry Ford did not decree the five-dollar day so his workers could buy those Model T’s, but it did work out that way. An American economy humming along with an economically meaningful job for everyone who wants one translates into a prosperity picture unlike anything ever seen anywhere else on Earth.
We are not some tiny population made wealthy by oil wells, and not some small, homogeneous, mountaintop nation whose needs can be met by banking and tourism. We are almost four million square miles, the third largest nation by both land mass and population. We are one of the most ethnically diverse nations, a diversity that was achieved not by annexation but by immigration. Out bloodiest war was fought between our own North and South. But 100 years after that conflict our economic might and national unity allowed us to play a deciding role in the world’s bloodiest war, freeing much of the globe’s population from maniacal fascist regimes.
A quarter century after World War II, zooming that figurative satellite image in on one of Ike’s interstate highways would have revealed auto factory workers headed north towing boats (in summer) or snowmobiles (in winter) bound for second homes in northern Michigan. Several decades later Alan Greenspan was not watching traffic on I-75—four years before the calendar, at least, turned the corner into the 20th Century—when he famously spoke of “irrational exuberance.” But that was irrational exuberance towing large toys north for those long weekends. Further, that irrational, outlier of an image nonetheless demonstrates the breathtaking power of America’s economic engine at full throttle. Still further, that image portrays how such breathtaking power can generate wondrously erroneous calibrations of personal and corporate economic reach. If the image were not so realistic, one could easily see a road sign proclaiming: “You Are Now Leaving the 20th Century.” Down on the ground it is an image about jobs, the same ones John McCain was talking about when he said that a lot of disappeared car industry jobs “are not coming back.”
I said earlier that no politician and no constituency wants to accept that kind of truth. Too bad, because the truth that needs acknowledging is far larger than the American Three automakers shedding jobs, or one entire industry shedding some jobs. It is about structural change, not a cyclical downturn. We must go about the business discussed in the previous two chapters. Those first two steps of the train-wreck triage are a matter of survival. But we must not kid ourselves—or let the politicians kid us—into believing that a successful landing in the new global economy will put all those boats and snowmobiles back onto I-75.
So where is the good news in all of this? If I profess to have a tendency toward optimism, even in the face of so much bad news, what’s to be optimistic about?
First, from the perspective of personal experience, as a young boy during the Nazi invasion of Crete I headed for the hills with my caretaker aunt, dodging bullets in the first part of our flight. It was only because of her indomitable spirit, innate intelligence, and ability to forage and bargain that our little household of two middle-aged sisters and two orphaned brothers survived four years of German occupation—plus several years of civil chaos and hardship after the war. Millions of people in the world at that time, even among survivors, had it worse. But my wartime childhood suggests that facing America’s current problems, armed with America’s assets, is a situation that at least should leave room for optimism.
Second, in a battlefield crisis there is no substitute for a well-conceived holding action that buys time and guarantees that at the very least you will be around, and prepared, for the decisive action to come. We have a clear path to preparing for full-bore global economic competition; and if this economy does prepare, that means we likely will prevail. In battlefield metaphor that is most definitely an optimistic scenario. The trouble with battlefield metaphors is that, if honest, they address issues such as “acceptable casualties.” In this case I prefer to think of “unavoidable casualties.” That is the enormous piece of bad news in the first paragraph of this chapter. The optimist in me says that if we make an honest assessment of the problem and proceed accordingly, we will emerge in the heart of the 21st Century economically victorious—or at least the very best we can be. The pessimist in me says it is very likely that empty political promises will tempt the public down a path that will leave government, not the people, as the winner. The better path is do-able, so I prefer to maintain my optimistic tendencies.
What is the first step, assuming that (as we stipulated at the chapter’s outset) the first two steps of the triage are undertaken and accomplished? American leadership—in education, politics, and news media—must convey the onrushing facts of technological advancement. Most importantly, the demagoguery must stop. No one should be asked to believe that government, for example, can play entrepreneur and create competitively viable, sustainable new “green jobs” that will clean up the bad numbers on our employment balance sheet. And no one should be asked to believe that a tax cut here and a tax cut there will somehow get the economy humming and put a paycheck in every pocket.
We must accept and deal with the fact that large numbers of Americans will never again have jobs providing the kind of income they once earned. We must acknowledge that many Americans now in their 60s or 50s possess once valuable skills that are now obsolete, and that many of these workers will never again, for various reasons, earn a middle-class wage. We must admit that a significant number of Americans who once held “decent jobs” will never again work in any traditional employment setting. We must understand that this trend will only continue—that those workers with science and tech skills will dominate the employment rolls, but that the labor force will require fewer and fewer salaried or hourly workers of any background. Can I, or anyone else, quantify these numbers today, and having done so can we draw a curve showing their inexorable march upward on a specific timeline? No. Or rather, no one could do so with any accuracy. No matter. Such numbers aren’t needed. The trend and its general destination are evident truths, and we must accept them.
This is what I meant by: “I have yet to hear any sound bites that even put this enormous problem on the table.” Have you? Surely you have read or heard countless news stories, and watched countless guests on news talk shows, and heard countless politicians shouting “Jobs, jobs, jobs!” In the course of all that verbosity, have you ever heard anyone say, in paraphrase: “Of course, it’s true that technological advancements will mean fewer and fewer workers will be needed. You know what? We are going to have a huge structural problem in what to do with all these ‘unneeded’ people!” I don’t think so. Instead, with the leading edge of this revolution at hand, one is more likely to hear, too many times to count, another debate on whether unemployment benefits should be extended past two years. And speaking of structural problems in the workforce, these debates seldom, if ever, mention the fact that underemployed Americans working multiple part-time jobs are not eligible to receive a single week of such benefits. An underemployed store clerk is every bit as much a part of this big picture as someone whose high-paid factory job has been rendered obsolete.