In today’s hyperconnected world without walls — when more Indians, Chinese, computers, robots and software can perform more average blue-collar and white-collar jobs — the only high-wage jobs are increasingly high-skill jobs
Our kids face three big adjustments. First, to be in the middle class, they will need to be constantly improving their skills over their lifetime. Second, to do that, they will need a lot more self-motivation. … And third, countries that thrive the most will be the H.I.E.’s — the high imagination-enabling countries — that attract and enable talent to be constantly spinning off new ideas and start-ups, the source of most new good jobs.
Thomas Friedman, Can’t We Do Better?, New York Times, December 7, 2013.
Tom Friedman is almost always worth reading, but he has yet to acknowledge a societal development that is one of the most consequential for the world’s working families – the transformation of the role that work plays day in and day out in distributing the world economy’s newly created wealth.
Ironically, Friedman identifies the very forces that are undoing the role of work in distributing newly produced wealth, but fails to follow through. He takes us right to the door through which he could walk us to the real solutions to growing poverty and inequality. He then turns away and offers up the same old failed conventional wisdom.
Friedman and so many others define the problem of low wage jobs and growing inequality as due to the inadequacies of workers (low skills, outdated skills, lack of drive). They fail to seriously consider the possibility that the world of work is changing in such fundamental ways that no feasible amount of improvement in the skill levels of working people or change in their approaches to getting and keeping jobs can reverse the trend toward lower wages and greater poverty and inequality.
As Friedman rightly notes, global integration and advancing productive technologies have great consequences for working families and societies, but not because they are creating demand for highly skilled workers and destroying demand for low skilled workers. The core systemic change is that those forces are producing an enormous and growing surplus of labor, both skilled and unskilled.
The role of machine energy in the production of the world’s goods and services has advanced to such a large proportion of the combination of human energy and machine energy that the available human energy far exceeds the demand for human energy. Even human thinking energy is being displaced by machine energy.
The trend shows up in the long term decline in the proportion of the world’s population that is employed. Friedman and others apparently believe that this trend won’t eventually bring us to a point in time when more than half the world’s people are effectively outside the world of work.
How then will we distribute the world economy’s newly created wealth day after day?
The era in which employment could be the primary way in which a person could legitimately claim a fair share of the world economy’s income is nearly over. Yet Friedman and other experts still have not asked the question in public of what will give a person a right to a fair share of income in this increasingly jobless world.
The world’s people desperately need a new kind of right to income, and until we invent that right, inequality will keep getting worse and more of the world’s people, including Americans, will be shoved into lives of destitution, begging, scavenging, and violence.