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Saturday, September 21, 2013
Economics/Business ... Society ...

I’m getting old now, as I recently completed my sixth decade here on Earth. So it’s kind-of natural for me to look back on the days of my youth and count the ways in which they were better than today. But then again, perhaps there really were some things about the suburban world of the 1960’s and 1970’s that were better. A lot of young people of today — the “Millennials” — are pretty upset about their declining social and economic possibilities. Some of them even look back with envy and irony on the world that I knew when I was their age, perhaps questioning the fairness of why their parents’ generation (the “Boomers”) had such abundant opportunities for a good, comfortable life as compared with the challenges that they now face.

In fact, the Millennials have created an Internet fictional character called “Old Economy Steve“, to stand as a “meme” (something like a mythological sound bite) for their frustrations. Old Economy Steve is a series of short messages posted on a series of identical pictures showing a long-haired white guy who definitely looks like a refuge from That Seventies Show. To be honest, I didn’t look all that different from Steve back then. And to be more honest, most of what they say about O.E. Steve’s world is more-or-less true. Back then, you COULD get a job with good pay right out of high school and be fairly sure that if you kept your nose to the grindstone, you would soon have enough to get married, buy a house, and raise a family. If you wanted to shoot a little higher, you COULD go to college and pay for books and tuition from what you earned on a summer job (I did just that!). And a college degree just about guaranteed a very decent job (that is, until the year that I graduated). No moving back in with mom and dad, not back in those days.

As with every ‘meme’, reality doesn’t completely fit with the story behind it. As Megan McArdle points out, if you weren’t a white male, things weren’t quite so rosy. Blacks, Mexicans, women, farmers, small business owners, and other groups had to struggle and didn’t always achieve the “American Dream”. And yet, Mexicans and Blacks kept on coming up from the agrarian south in huge numbers to seek industrial employment in US cities in the 40’s thru the 70’s; perhaps they got the lowest jobs available, but they must have felt those were still better than what they had. And small business owners and farmers had the option of ‘starting over in the city’ back when industrial jobs were easy to come by. And despite sexism in the workplace, women still had a lot of economic choices back then, choices that aren’t as easy to come by in today’s economy — including being a stay-at-home mother, like my own mother was.

And by the same token, Steve himself, if he got out of high school in ’71 or thereafter (I was class of 71) started facing more and more career challenges. The oil price shock of 1973-74 threw the economy into a nasty recession, and along with many of my colleagues, I had to wait a long time to get a job after college. And even then we didn’t get the jobs we were hoping for, we settled for most any steady gig. From that point on, the US economy continued along a “de-industrialization” path that closed all the factories (or got rid of the factory jobs, even when the factory stayed open). The unions that once insured job security and good benefits slowly weakened and contracted. Governments had to cut-back on education subsidies, and college tuition costs started their steep ascent. Energy prices wavered, but were never as reliably low as in the 1950s and 60s.

Technology and business management innovations came quicker and quicker as the 70s and 80s progressed, and things changed more and more rapidly. Many of those changes were good, as they offered new products, and made existing things cheaper and often of better quality. But as to the basics of participation in the economy — i.e. the ability to make a decent living, leave something for your kids, and save enough for a nice retirement — that seemed to get harder and harder for the “common man” (and woman).

So, before we knew it, much of the stuff that we bought for our households (tables, towels, refrigerators, radios, even our automobiles and oranges and lettuce) were being made (or grown) in Mexico or China or other far-off lands. Not long thereafter, more and more jobs once held by Americans were being “outsourced” to countries like India, where wages and benefits are so much lower. Cheaper computers and robots soon made it easier to build machines to do what people once did (e.g. assemble autos, run chemical plants, sell tickets, take your bank deposits, answer your questions on the phone . . . ) . And government “safety net” programs meant to help those who were affected by all these changes got stretched thinner and thinner, while businesses became more and more wary about providing permanent employment opportunities or decent compensation for those employees that it still needed. The “Old Economy” that allegedly coddled Steve was already starting to die even when Steve (and most of us Boomers) still wore those unfortunate hair styles.

What killed the “Old Economy“? Or perhaps better put, why can’t the “New Economy” treat average people better in terms of offering decent job prospects and stable middle-class lives (including affordable health care, affordable education opportunities, and freedom from all the upsetting, unanticipated changes that happen faster and faster these days)? Many articles and books and web conversations have been written on this subject. I have already mentioned some of these factors — e.g. advancing technology, growing economic internationalization (leading to Tom Friedman’s “hot, flat and crowded world“), continuing wars, nationalism, terrorism, political gridlock, increasing chaos in the overall economic-social-political structures . . .

But if I had to boil it down to two things, which perhaps are just two sides of the same coin, I would cite accelerating technological advancement, along with the growing ability of employers to use that technology to get things done with machines instead of humans. I first read about what accelerating technology change might mean, way back when I looked looked like O.E. Steve — i.e., in Alvin Toffler’s book “Future Shock”. Many of the particular predictions made by Toffler were wrong, but one theme he kept on repeating has come true with a vengeance. And that is that our economy, our society, and our political governance systems are changing faster and faster with every new year. And perhaps they are changing too fast for humans, such as we are, to successfully adapt our lives and society to them in a fair and agreeable fashion. It seems like I myself have seen 4 or 5 times as much change in how things are done in the world versus what my parents might have lived with. For the Millennials of today, that might be a factor of 10 or 20!

To be continued. Next time we will consider where all this accelerating technical and industrial change is taking us with regard to human beings and the age-old expectation that every able-bodied adult person has to work for a living. And whether political action on the part of the Millennials to change things would do any good (say, to cut back on all the government old age benefits that we Boomers are counting on, so as to reduce the federal deficit that will otherwise become a huge burden on future generations — i.e., someone’s gotta pay for all the debt that we are now running up!)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:39 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I don’t know if it’s just me or what, but I tend to get tired of the Millennial generation whining about how hard life is and the bad deal they have received from their elders. Sometimes I think it’s because it’s been such a long time since there was a depression that had a really long-lasting effect on everybody. Then again, I think it may be because of the difference in my own age from yours and especially that of the young people today.

    I was born in the depths of the 1930s depression. And with perspective I’ve found over the years that two things about that time are reflective of what is going on in the depression we have now.

    One is that previous to the depression of the 1930s there was a period of serious “boom” where everybody tho’t that money grew on trees (so to say); everybody would be rich forever. My own mother (and now we are going back at least 75 or 80 years, maybe more?) told me that “the rich are different” from other people.

    Thinking about that over the years I realize that she herself as a growing girl/woman was in what might today be called the upper middle class, or maybe even the lower upper class. Then came the 1930s depression. (Well, really that depression started in 1929 and got steadily worse for several years, but I’m not going to be picky about dates here.)

    According to “standards” that I lived through (those of the 1930s depression), I have come to realize, with some tho’t in my later years, that my mother was rich as a young person. Then her father died. Women in my grandmother’s generation didn’t work outside the home; so it was touch and go for her family for a while. My mother was what we would call today a “feminist” as she worked outside the home in a bank to help support the family, starting from the age of about sixteen. Then the 1930s depression hit and things got worse. My mother carried with her until her death a “conservatism” approach to life; here I’m not talking about political conservatism but a conservatism in the use of things. That is, use every bit of something, do *not* use more than you absolutely need of anything at all, etc. As an adult, newly married and raising a family she lived through very difficult times, when people literally had nothing to eat, had no jobs, no way to feed their children. Sound familiar?

    My father came from immigrants who left their homeland for “better times”. He started poor and stayed poor.

    I find myself thinking of “our present situation”, i.e., what you are calling in this piece (and here I paraphrase) the days of “Old Economy Steve”, when Steve basically lived a very good life. Now the present generation of Millennials are in the position my mother was, it seems, the generation following the “good times” when people cannot buy every single thing they *want* but must think in terms of buying what they *need*. A statement my father used to make a *lot*.

    If one looks back on our own history, the up/down of the economy has been recurring. In fact, a lot of the migration from the East Coast to the West Coast took place because of depressions where people “moved on” to find better times for themselves.

    If one looks back even further in time think of the change from the guild economy to the industrial economy! Talk about a change. Now we are living through another change from the industrial to the technological/informational age. We are in another “talk about change!” time.

    I guess people can moan their way through life about how good the “old times” were; but having lived through several sets of “old times”, I find that the “old times” had their own problems and sorrows too. Life is life. It’s just not going to change. There will be ups; there will be downs. The thing is to just take the life we have and live through it as best we can.

    Don’t mean this to be a sermon by any means, but it seems to me that all this whining about what the “old folks” have left to the young people today is based more on whining than on a perspective with any depth. (And here I also think of the “old folks” and the nostalgia that haunts them for the “old days”—how good it *was*; how bad it *is*; somehow it doesn’t move me.) And, of course, the Millennials will have to live a little longer to get their own perspective on their own lives. I say give them some time. MCS

    Comment by Mar — September 22, 2013 @ 10:27 am

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