Two Roads Diverge

The first in a week-long, three-part series.

I’m doing some reorienting. Prioritizing my non-work identities and relationships. Mid-life crisis? Don’t think so, but time will tell. Check back in a year or two from now. Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I’m taking the first steps of a journey whose outcome is unknown.

So what follows, like my identity more generally, is a work in progress. I don’t expect anyone to agree with everything. Or anything.

U.S. citizens are at a fork in the woods. A fork formed by a decline in manufacturing, technology-based automation, slower economic growth, and heightened economic scarcity.

More details here, although you don’t need Tyler Cowen or me to tell you about what you’re experiencing day-to-day.

We talk at length about the trees in the woods—fast rising gas prices, exorbitant health insurance premiums and college costs, and declining home values —but hardly at all about what lifestyles are most sustainable and meaningful.

The fork has prompted a radical shift in thinking. In the U.S., throughout the 20th century, parents thought, “I expect my children to live a better, more comfortable life than me.” Today the default is “I worry and wonder whether my children will be able to live as well and comfortably as me.”

Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I worried and wondered.

Economic security seems outside of our control. The economy is in constant flux and no job is secure. We can’t get politicians to think beyond their re-election and balance our state or national budgets. We can’t get them to stop fighting distant wars. We can’t slow China’s and India’s growth. We can’t reduce our dependence on oil. We can’t get consumers to stop shopping at Wal-Mart and other big boxes. We can’t stop companies from outsourcing jobs. And there’s seemingly no way to improve parenting, fix schools, or reduce inequality.

The fork is doubly tough for adults responsible for young people. They worry, what does their future hold? “I’m worried for myself and I’m worried for you.”

If we stop or even slow down, we may be overcome with fear for the future and overwhelmed with anxiety; therefore, we fill our days with work, shopping, entertainment, new apps, Facebook.

I wouldn’t be able to write this sentence if I weren’t extremely privileged, but I wonder if these tough economic times are an opportunity to slow down and think through more carefully how we want to live, to find ways to live more sustainable, meaningful lives. Or maybe, since lifestyle choices are intensely personal, I should say, how I want to live, to find ways for me to live a more sustainable, meaningful life.

Before fleshing out those concepts, consider the perspectives of the political left and right who have distinct opinions about the causes and consequences of the fork. Competing voices in the woods if you will. And yes, I’m conscious I’m overgeneralizing. Sometimes when you’re painting, you just grab the broad brush.

The right interprets economic history and life more generally through the lens of American exceptionalism. They’re more anxious about accelerating ethnic diversity than they are global economic restructuring. They refuse to acknowledge our relative decline and are nostalgic for the second half of the 20th century when the U.S.’s economic, military, and political advantages were much more obvious. They’re in serious denial, but if you tell them that they’ll label you anti-American, because in their worldview, American exceptionalism is self-evident.

Stagnant wages and high unemployment aren’t a result of technology-based automation, economic globalization, or our consumer choices. They’re temporary anomalies. Small bumps in the road. If the Kenyan-born, Muslim president (okay, that was uncalled for) would just embrace American exceptionalism, reduce the government to a fourth of its current size and lower taxes by half, we’d quickly reclaim our rightful role as the world’s unquestioned economic superpower. Then we could pick up living large again.

Wednesday—Part 2 of 3—The left, the President, and my evolving thoughts on the fork.

What Work Will The Next Generation Do?

First and last sentences from an article in today’s WSJ titled “Even-In-A-Recovery-Some-Jobs-Won’t-Return”.

Even when the U.S. labor market finally starts adding more workers than it loses, many of the unemployed will find that the types of jobs they once had simply don’t exist anymore.

. . . Harvard’s Mr. Katz warns that past experience suggests. . . conjecture is likely fruitless. “One thing we’ve learned is that when we attempt to forecast jobs 10 or 15 years out, we don’t even get the categories right,” he says.

In other words, the economy is so fluid, it’s illogical to plan on having any particular job.

So what are young people to do?

I have lots of thoughts on the subject, but I’m curious about what you think?

Lasting, Meaningful Work

Print versions of newspapers are endangered species. In part, for that you can thank Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. Craigslist, which I’m a fan of, has crippled print classified revenue. For the newly unemployed journalists this is a negative and painful turn of events, for the rest of us it should be a precautionary tale about the Information Revolution and our children’s educational futures.

The plight of print newspapers begs a question: In an Information Revolution characterized by increasing global interdependence what type of K-12 and higher education experiences will enable young people to find lasting, meaningful work? More specifically, what knowledge, what skills, what sensibilities will increase the odds that young people will avoid economic dislocation as a result of increasing automation and outsourcing? 

Too few educators are asking those questions.

The young, internet savvy students in my globalization course are familiar with foreign call centers, but are surprised to learn the extent outsourcing is taking. As a reminder that whatever data or services can be digitized and sent abroad for processing probably will be, I provide each of them with a one inch long piece of coaxial cable to keep in their pockets throughout their PLU experience. After distributing the pieces of cable, I ask them what they think the key ingredients of an outsource-resistant education are.

Initially at least, they stare at me blankly (51 seconds in).

After awhile though, the wheels start to turn, and they begin responding with thoughtful insights.

Instead of revealing their thinking, what do you think?

Historically, a part of the “American dream” was that children would enjoy an even better quality of life than their parents. Now though, many anxious parents wonder whether their children will enjoy their same quality of life. By themselves, high school diplomas, G.E.D’s., and even higher education degrees don’t guarantee anything. Just ask the journalists at the Christian Science Monitor or Seattle Post Intelligencer.