Two New York Times articles have me thinking (again) about my kids’ futures.
Here is another change that might be a broader sign of a pending reset: A heavy burden of adjustment in the overall labor market is being borne by the young. Wages for the typical graduate of a four-year college have dropped more than 7 percent since 2000, and the labor force participation rate of the young has been falling. One consequence is that young people are living at home longer and receiving more aid from their parents. They also seem to be less interested in buying their own homes.
All of these factors could indicate that our economy is evolving into one that will offer far less favorable long-run wage prospects. Much research has shown that the effects of a recession can be pernicious for decades: Earning a lower wage in earlier years is predictive of lower wages through the rest of one’s career. While we are seeing economic problems for the relatively young, they will eventually become dominant earners in the economy and the major force behind broader statistics. In short, are these economic problems transitory, or are we glimpsing the beginnings of a grimmer future?
Next, from Barbara Ehrenreich in “’Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’”:
But “Rise of the Robots” doesn’t need any more examples; the human consequences of robotization are already upon us, and skillfully chronicled here. Although the unemployment rate has fallen to officially acceptable levels, long-term unemployment persists, and underemployment — part-time jobs when full-time jobs are needed, or jobs that do not reflect a worker’s education — is on the rise. College-educated people often flounder for years after graduation, finding temp jobs and permanent roommates. Adults of both sexes are drifting out of the work force in despair. All of this has happened by choice, though not the choice of the average citizen and worker. In the wake of the recession, Ford writes, many companies decided that “ever-advancing information technology” allows them to operate successfully without rehiring the people they had laid off. And there should be no doubt that technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment. Ford quotes the co-founder of a start-up dedicated to the automation of gourmet hamburger production: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
Ford offers little hope that emerging technologies will eventually generate new forms of employment, in the way that blacksmiths yielded to autoworkers in the early 20th century. He predicts that new industries will “rarely, if ever, be highly labor-intensive,” pointing to companies like YouTube and Instagram, which are characterized by “tiny workforces and huge valuations and revenues.” On another front, 3-D printing is poised to make a mockery of manufacturing as we knew it. Truck driving may survive for a while — at least until self-driving vehicles start rolling out of Detroit or, perhaps, San Jose.
Read them both in their entirety.
As the owner of two teenagers on the precipice of leaving high school and moving into their future lives, I worry a great deal about this stuff. As someone who visits dozens of schools each year and talks to hundreds if not thousands of teachers, I worry even more. We seem to be blithely moving forward with the same recipe for “success” despite mounting evidence that what we’ve been doing to prepare our kids is less relevant than it’s ever been. It’s as if we hear it and, in some cases, even acknowledge that serious, deep changes are afoot, but we are powerless to act. Or too tired. We don’t include these larger shifts into the contexts we bring to our conversations around change (or much else, for that matter.)
I’ve been saying for years that if you’re in education and you’re not feeling uncomfortable right now, you’re not paying attention. Our collective discomfort with the system should be growing. And the window for action is closing pretty quickly.