There is a persistent nostalgia that is actually very unhealthy. So many people want to return to the time when they were young. In the mid 20th century, America was the only first world country left intact after World War II. It became an industrial powerhouse, education surged, the population surged, young people did consistently better than their parents. Those days are gone, and they didn’t suddenly disappear. A study recently published by the Equality of Opportunity Project shows that the percentage of Americans who make more than their parents has been steadily declining for half a century. Americans born in 1945 had about a 90% chance of making more than their parents. For Americans born in 1984 that figure had dropped to about 50%.
It wasn’t just about manufacturing back then either. From 1950 to 1975, the percentage of Americans getting college degrees exploded, from only about 5% to about 25%. Educational attainment is highly correlated with income. But during the Reagan years, this percentage actually declined a bit, and only recently has started to climb again. The problem is, the 70% of Americans who aren’t getting college degrees are falling farther and farther behind. America has shifted from an industrial economy to an information/service economy. The information economy provides good-paying jobs, but they require college. The service economy, which is most of the economy, does not. And even these jobs are at risk from automation.
Automation has displaced huge numbers of American jobs, and automation will continue to accelerate. In the short term, automation may actually bring back some American jobs, because it will encourage manufacturers to keep their plants in the U.S. But we will never again have the labor-intensive manufacturing that drove the American economy in the mid 20th century. And the fact is, much of that manufacturing was providing people with very basic things, like cars, refrigerators, washing machines, and televisions, things that in previous years many Americans didn’t have. Once they have them, they don’t need more of them. A growing economy requires more and more stuff. When many people didn’t have basics, that was easy to do. The growth years of the 1990’s had everything to do with the rise of computer technology and the internet, things that we now consider basics.
Growth is still possible. In the near future, renewable energy will probably grow tremendously, replacing fossil fuels. But like most new industries, these are not labor-intensive. A solar farm requires a small amount of manpower to maintain, compared to an oil field or refinery. The same is true of a wind farm. Utility industries will simply make the wise business decision and go with power sources that are more profitable. Labor costs eat into profits. “Worker productivity” has nothing to do with human hard work – in many ways, it’s the opposite. A worker who works leisurely for 2 hours to produce 1000 dollars worth of production is 10 times as productive as one who busts his butt for 20 hours to produce the same.
Similarly, demographic change is not going to reverse. America will steadily get browner. That’s the future. If you think the clock can turn back, you’re delusional. Even Reagan didn’t do that. Automation did not decline during the Reagan years. Oil didn’t go back to being 35 cents a gallon. Japanese cars did not disappear. The browning of America did not reverse itself. For all of their anxiety about demographic change, white middle Americans have not responded by producing lots of children, and there is no hint that they will do so. Much of the baby boom of the 20th century happened before the birth control pill received FDA approval in 1960. After that the American birth rate plummeted and has never returned to the levels seen in the 1950’s.
It is quite apparent that something has to give. While young, multicultural America has grown increasingly impatient with intolerance and the culture war, white, monocultural America has grown increasingly entrenched, and now it is highly emboldened. The Republican Party, which is only 23% of the American electorate (and about 90% white), now controls Washington and most state governments. Efforts to disenfranchise non-whites will now accelerate. I will frankly be amazed if this powder keg does not blow up in our faces.