The ’90s and now, part 5

The viralness of the aforementioned articles is also congruent with the recent backlash and cynicism about the idealization of the so-called ‘American dream’, democracy, and the ‘Protestant work ethic’, all of which are predicated on an increasingly flawed and obsolete premise that one’s position in society and success at life is isomorphic to ‘effort’, ‘grit’, and ‘work ethic’, but the cold, hard data and reality shows that economic mobility is largely a function of IQ, which is immutable and genetic and flies in the face of this idealism, but also determined by one’s family/parental wealth, which is also out of one’s control. The hyper-competitive nature of America’s post-2008 economy makes IQ more important than ever, not only for social status, but one’s own socioeconomic status, whereas in the ’90s, social skills were considered more important, and the correlation between IQ and success and upward mobility was not as strong.

From The Inescapable Pull of Biology:

Millions of people, if by no fault but their own genes, are predestined to mediocrity. This may seem bad, but society needs mediocre people in order to function; by statistical fact, not everyone can be exceptional. But maybe we need to dispel this infectious yet erroneous romanticism that equates success with hard work, when in reality luck–whether it’s winning the genetic lottery, being at the ‘right place at the right time’, or something else–plays a much bigger role. But then why do we tell ourselves (and our children, students, etc. ) these lies? Why do we keep spreading these success ‘creation myths‘?

In the ’90’s, forecasters optimistically assumed that technology, economic growth, free trade, and globalization would create enough good-paying jobs for everyone regardless of skill or IQ, but as discussed in the excellent Quillette article The Twilight of Liberalism?, that hasn’t happened:

Technological progress has increased demand for those high in cognitive capacity while decreasing demand for other skills (and especially decreasing demand for “middle-skills” jobs). Many analysts pointed to economic anxiety among the white working class as one of the reasons for Trump’s improbable 2016 election victory. Although this has been vigorously disputed, the increasing appeal of economic (and cultural) populism suggests that something transformative has occurred in the market. The most obvious change since the late ’70s (and especially since the late ’90s) is the decline of well-paying jobs for those with relatively low cognitive capital (education). Although this decline is a fairly general phenomenon, the weakening demand for manufacturing jobs illustrates the point. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States remained constant. But, since 2000, nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs have been lost.

The decline in well-paying jobs for relatively uneducated men has coincided with a decline in the prime age (25–54) male labor force participation rate. In 1996, 4.6 million prime aged males were out of the labor force. By 2016, that number had increased to 7.1 million. Importantly, most of the males who are leaving the labor force are those who do not possess skills fit for a post-industrial marketplace. Profound changes in the economy, most notably automation, have led to an increasingly polarized labor market with job opportunities concentrated in the high-skill, high-wage sector and the low-wage, low-skill sector.

And from The Great Displacement, by Andrew Yang:

In the U.S. we want to believe that the market will resolve most situations. In this case, the market will not solve the problem – quite the opposite. The market is driven to reduce costs. It will look to find the cheapest way to perform tasks. The market doesn’t want to provide for unemployed truck drivers or cashiers. Uber is going to get rid of its drivers as soon as it can. Its job isn’t to hire lots of people – its job is to move customers around as efficiently as possible. The market will continue to throw millions of people out of the labor force as automation and technology improve. In order for society to continue to function and thrive when tens of millions of Americans don’t have jobs, we will need to rethink the relationship between work and being able to pay for basic needs. And then, we will have to determine ways to convey the psychic and social benefits of work in other ways.

I don’t fully agree with Yang’s assessment regarding technology making jobs obsolete, but it’s a concern that a lot of people have, and should be addressed nevertheless. People may be dropping out, but the reason is not necessarily due to automaton, but due to other factors such as not being qualified, not enough pay, drug addiction, etc. Working for minimum wage may seem like a poor deal compared to collecting disability and or other benefits. An increasingly large percentage of employers, especially in the years following the financial crisis, require a college degree even for relatively simple jobs, so that means the 70% of adult Americans who don’t have a degree are automatically disqualified.