Brexit, European nativist movements, Trump’s victory. 2016 may well be remembered as the year the West turned on globalization.
The heat may be high now, but the fire has been building for decades. The American public at large became broadly aware of globalization – and its potential downside – in the 1990s. But even before then, the collapse of America's domestic industrial sector was well under way – as anyone in Flint can tell you.
A Globalization Story
Those in the 1990s who advocated for globalization, including presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, recognized this reality and made a promise. Don't worry. Yes, globalization could exacerbate the loss of domestic manufacturing to cheaper, overseas options, but America will be the idea factory.
Here, we’ll dream up the new cars. Who cares if the ones actually making the cars are somewhere else? We're the brains. The creative class. Besides, manufacturing is gone, not coming back. Better to embrace that reality now and go off and get retooled. Go back to school. Get a college degree. And when you're done, you'll be ready to enter the prosperous new economy.
The Dream of the 90s
It's a nice story... one I heard often growing up in the 80s and 90s. The argument went something like, we won't make the cars, robots will. But someone still has to program and maintain those robots. And that takes a skilled, trained mind. A college-educated mind. An American mind. I can practically hear my father tell the story. Nice story, too... to bad it didn't come true.
For one, while it takes huge teams to build cars, it takes many fewer to program robots. That's one of the reasons you switch to robots. Not only do they work without exhaustion or lunch breaks or messy contract negotiations, they also turn the work of one into that of many.
It’s a huge win for efficiency and can benefit both the producer (it's cheaper to make goods) and the consumer (goods cost less).
And it works… sort of. Some consumer goods have gotten cheaper ($150 HDTV, anyone?). And corporations have made record sums of money. But the economy is like any other machine. It needs energy to run, and in this case, energy means salaries (to buy those cheaper goods). And salaries mean work (and decent wages).
So for this entire contraption to function, it means that those recently unemployed or underemployed workers have to get that much promised retooling and land decent jobs. The former welder would need to be retrained as a software engineer. And then he would need to find a job in that field. And then he would need to hope that the idea factory concept pans out long term.
And if history is any guide, it’s a very difficult proposition for many. Because retraining is hard. And college degrees aren't free. They're expensive and time consuming. And even if you get to the other side, there's no guarantee that you'll find work in that field. Because, surprise, machine learning and AI are even starting to replace complex, very human jobs – like writing and composing music and driving.
The Knowledge Economy Snowball
At some point, the economy has lost enough higher wage jobs that the machine starts to run out of juice — or at least it feels that way — and people start to get worried. What did we sacrifice in order to gain $150 flat screen TVs?
What exactly is the knowledge economy, anyhow, and how could it ever possibly create enough jobs to replace all those lost? And doesn't that concept fundamentally deprive traditional labor of its worth – turning it into a lesser form of work? What if I like being a welder?
Answers aren't forthcoming. Resentment ensues. Welcome to 2017.
The Snowball Rolls
I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg. It took decades to build this head of steam – essentially the course of my life – and it's not going to evaporate overnight.
Moreover, I think the path forward requires us to have some really hard conversations. We need to talk about work beyond the economics. Work means something psychologic and emotional; its loss fundamentally alters people and communities. How do we reconcile modern consumer capitalism and its drive to quantify everything with these older, perhaps innate, certainly less tangible benefits to work?
And we have to talk about education. As is too often the case, schools have been called on to untie this Gordian knot. They are asked to prepare people for work that doesn't yet exist – may never exist in fact – and that has, at best, abstractly defined skills… problem solving, creative thinking, lifelong learning.
Plus, not everyone wants or will excel at formal education. I firmly believe everyone wants to learn and grow. And I also believe “school” (the construct) doesn’t work for everyone. It works best for those who know how to “do school.”
It’s one reason why college success links to the parents’ own levels of and expectation for education. Everyone needs to be an informed citizen capable of engaging in society in deep, meaningful ways. Not everyone needs to have mastered advanced algebra or physics or Shakespeare.
The Work-School Pipeline
The redefinition of work and reevaluation of school go hand in glove. Why do we work, and why do we go to school? In the gig economy, what does career arc mean, and what must education look like to support?
These aren't small questions, but if we ask them – and if we honestly try to engage with the answers – we have a chance. Better to intentionally pull at the fabric of our social contract then to let it be torn to shreds by an angry mob.