This is a guest post by Michael Hendrix in response to the recent debate sparked by a provocative post on millennials and Gen Y “yuppie culture.” 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
Over the past few weeks, much has been written on GYPSY unicorns and my generation’s dashed hopes (warning: strong language). For my fellow millennials who get overly defensive on such matters, I have a request: Get over yourselves and get to work.
We are entering an era of profound economic change, and I fear that the career prospects of many in my generation have too much in common with those of the horse at the advent of the automobile. Consider these words from the economist Gregory Clark, who’s quoted at a key point in Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine:
There was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early 20th century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. … But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century rapidly displaced workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than 2 million. There was always a wage at which these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.
Structural changes are coming. Information and communications technologies (ICT) are bringing about a shift equally as profound as that of the Industrial Age. Just as steam power and the internal combustion engine swept away inefficient production and labor, so too will the Information Age’s connectivity and automation advance on so many of the jobs we hold dear. What Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue — and not without controversy — is that technology is advancing on mankind’s comparative advantages in a way that previous revolutions never could. Building a steam-powered hammer to take on John Henry’s brawn is one thing; fashioning a highly cognitive robot with fine motor skills is quite another. And while this future hasn’t fully arrived yet, it’s the process of getting there that we must prepare for.
Every industrial revolution comes in stages, and today is simply the beginning of what the Information Age will bring. Just think about the Industrial Age one more time. It came in two main stages, beginning with steam and railroads in the early 1800s and then culminating decades later in a new burst of innovation with electricity and the engine (and much more). Even then, the true precursors to the revolution began in the 1750s. Similarly, the ICT revolution required telephone lines and punch card computers before we could ever get to the iPhone. Although the lines from today’s Siri to tomorrow’s SkyNet remain blurred, they do exist.
We should be excited about this future. Vast new opportunities are coming that will alter the course of human history. Technological change today is already occurring faster and more substantively than we realize (the rate of algorithmic growth is but one indicator of this). As with any change, however, there will be winners and losers.
For these reasons, I’m beginning to think that the angst-ridden articles written by my fellow millennials are evidence of much larger forces at work. Changes are happening so fast that as jobs and career opportunities are being destroyed, the ability to retrain or reset expectations isn’t keeping pace. Even if people could retrain, the cyclical downturn we’ve experienced since the Great Recession has meant less job creation over all. To twist the knife further, even smart journalists are feeling the pinch as some types of knowledge work go the way of manual work. Is it at all surprising they feel obligated to spill so much ink as their livelihoods slip away?
Here’s the economist Tyler Cowen, who’s done much of the good thinking on today’s stagnation:
Self-driving vehicles threaten to send truck drivers to the unemployment office. Computer programs can now write journalistic accounts of sporting events and stock price movements. There are even computers that can grade essay exams with reasonable accuracy, which could revolutionize my own job, teaching. Increasingly, machines are providing not only the brawn but the brains, too, and that raises the question of where humans fit into this picture—who will prosper and who won’t in this new kind of machine economy?
Who will prosper indeed? If you are highly-skilled at the things that are in demand today, are a capital-owner, or are a superstar in your field, you will succeed beyond your wildest imaginations. The rest of us will fight over the scraps — that is, until organizational innovations and broader human capital developments are able to re-wire the economy so that average workers can thrive again.
How do we stay among the winners? By building on our intuition and creativity—two things that, placed in the right sphere, remain immensely valuable. We must also recognize the intense global competition each of us faces as a worker. We mustn’t just work—we have to work hard. Unfortunately, too many members of my own generation can’t seem to wrap their minds around that reality. They don’t readily fit into the four types of people Cowen believes are likely to thrive in the future:
- The conscientious and motivated
- People who listen to computers and who can work well with them
- People with a marketing touch
- Managers who are motivators
It isn’t so much that we’ll have winners and losers that gets me. It’s that many millennials aren’t facing up to the tough choices they’ll need to make to align their visions with reality. When the internal combustion engine came along and rendered horsepower to the pages of Motor Trend, these animals had little choice over their fate. We are different. We can look square-eyed into a future of vast change. We can work hard at the tasks set before us, for we were made to do so. Put another way, we can avoid the glue factory.
Things will get worse for this generation before they get better. The real tragedy of big government in this world is that we have a less agile economy, unable to adjust and absorb those who will inevitably lose out. Instead, the losers are really lost—and they will have been done in by the very institutions aimed at protecting them. Are we facing social disruption? Completely, and it will prey especially on family dissolution.
We should rest our dreams in the reality of the future, rather than in the shuttered factories and dissolved pensions that are now a legacy of the past. That’s where many on the Left falter and will continue to do so in the years ahead, looking to past dividends in order to bail out their futures. But that won’t work.
The future is enough trouble for the millennial. We can and should work toward far better dreams.
You can follow Michael Hendrix on Twitter at @Michael_Hendrix.