This is a guest post by Michael Hendrix, following up on his previous post on the economic challenges of millennials, and my own post on the deeper vocational questions that persist for Christians. Michael serves as the director for emerging issues and research at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews and a Texas native.
By Michael Hendrix
Twenty years from now, we will see an America where merit and reward are intertwined more than ever before. As I’ve written recently, those who win the future will significantly outpace their peers, leaving the rest to fight over the scraps until organizational innovations and human capital catches up once again.
If true, such a reality must be reckoned with. So what about those left behind? What will their futures look like? With decreases in gainful employment and the increasing disconnect between vocational aspirations and actual occupations, what other risks persist — economic, social, spiritual, and otherwise? Assuming we are not comfortable with such a future, what should we do about it?
The cyclical downturn has rendered many jobless or underemployed—especially the young and male. Worse yet, a significant number of Americans have simply dropped out of the labor force. But it has revealed broader structural challenges, too. Looking again at young men as an example, it’s not just that many are looking for gainful employment post-recession. It’s that male median wages have been stagnant since 1969. For young people in general, they don’t begin earning the nation’s median wage until they’re 30 years old, compared to 26 years of age back in 1980. More broadly, we see that labor force participation has been falling since 2000, and the global labor share of income has declined significantly since 1980s and in a majority of countries. The recession has been like an outrushing tide laying bare our economy’s rotting hull.
On the one hand, there may be little social disruption that results from all of this. Societies have a way of remaining remarkably stable for long periods of time. Inequality has risen and wages have been suppressed for decades already with little result, so why should we think that another 20 years would change anything? Not only that, but all of us have a strong tendency compare to compare ourselves locally — otherwise known as “keeping up with the Joneses.” If entire middle class neighborhoods and towns experience similar disruptions at roughly similar timelines, there is less of a marked contrast. The cultural contexts of local poverty may act to soothe the hurt.
If anything, geography represents the greatest potential source of tension. It’s not hard to imagine a future where the real contrast in income and wealth will be between cities. Major ones will be vast islands of wealth, while smaller cities will be bastions of the lower-middle class who work to just get by. In fact, this is happening already. For a good description of the on-going sorting of cities according to human capital, read Enrico Moretti’s The New Geography of Jobs.
In this future, many will simply get by and be happy. We see that with, say, those of our generation who move to Portland to work as baristas. Life is just comfortable enough, and there are distractions aplenty. When they turn 35 or 40, the bohemian life will grow significantly riskier, but regardless, income inequality may not lead to happiness inequality.
In reviewing Tyler Cowen’s recent book, Average Is Over, The Economist offers an excellent summary of the challenges at hand, as well as a pointed critique of his assumptions:
The left is sure that inequality is a recipe for riots. Mr. Cowen doubts it. The have-nots will be too engrossed in video games to light real petrol bombs. An ageing population will be rather conservative, he thinks. There will be lots of Tea-Party sorts among the economically left-behind. Aid for the poor will be slashed but benefits for the old preserved. He does not fear protectionism, as most jobs that can be sent overseas have already gone. He notes that the late 1960s, when society was in turmoil, was a golden age of income equality, while some highly unequal moments in history, including in medieval times, were rather stable.
Even if only a fraction of Mr. Cowen’s vision comes to pass, he is too sanguine about the politics of polarization. Inter-generational tensions fuelled 1960s unrest and would be back with a vengeance, this time in the form of economic competition for scarce resources. The Middle Ages were stable partly because peasants could not vote; an unhappy modern electorate, by contrast, would be prey to demagogues peddling simple solutions, from xenophobia to soak-the-rich taxes, or harsh, self-defeating crime policies. Yet Mr. Cowen’s main point is plausible: gigantic shifts are under way, and they may be unstoppable.
Charles Murray’s work in Coming Apart is helpful in both informing and providing a contrast to Cowen. Those left in the bottom rungs will have less to fill their lives with as a substitute for gainful employment. Family supports will be weaker, communities more disconnected, and government less able than ever before. Absent a societal reserve of private virtue and values, human flourishing will prove farther out of reach. Individuals set loose from their moorings seem primed for disruption. While Cowen points to Portugal’s happy, stagnant poor as a positive future scenario, one can also look to Britain’s aimless young, whose opportunity is far too often being poured out in dead-end lives. The most pernicious effect of these broken homes and hollow opportunities will be the surfeit of broken relationships, which is, after all, the very definition of poverty.
Indeed, if young people increasingly search for meaning beyond work or family, where will they find it? On this, the church will be especially needed to offer a robust reply. There will be material and emotional needs aplenty, making the demand for faithful presence ever more imperative.
Structural changes are already well underway. As a generation, we still have an opportunity to take them seriously, but given their momentum and the reach of various ripple effects, the prospects are daunting.
Challenges will differ from individual to individual, community to community, but as we press forward into the future, we should remain ever prescient that whatever economic challenges we face, they will be accompanied by broader challenges to human flourishing.