Whither the Working Class?

The demand for labor is shrinking. Globalization has already gutted the blue collar job market and now automation is rapidly finishing it off. What does the future hold for the working class, the historical backbone of our society?

Not everyone is suited for a college education and a life shuffling paper or designing smart phone apps. All of us have talents and for many of us those talents involve physical labor. There have always been ways for honest, hardworking people to make honorable livings and to support themselves and their families. But there is little opportunity for the working class these days. Those who can make the jump to the white collar world (as I did) will prosper, but those left behind will, it seems, fall even further behind.

So what are we to do with the working class, in the absence of any meaningful work to do? A life on welfare, at the expense of their dignity? These are people for whom work is a virtue. In this culture the worst thing you can say about someone is that they are lazy. And these are people who are fiercely independent. They want to earn their keep. They don’t want a life of dependency. Everyone of any merit is “hardworking” and everyone wants that word in their eulogy.

And so the working class is frustrated and, increasingly, angry. They’ve seen no real increase in wages in a decade, even as the upper classes continue to amass incredible amounts of wealth. They believe that the political establishment doesn’t care about them, or is even actively working against them. This belief is the source of much of the political unrest we’re seeing in the U.S. now, as working class people grasp for heroes, seemingly willing to accept terribly flawed options.

A couple of days ago I saw a bumper sticker that read: “Annoy a liberal. Work hard. Be happy.” Why should people believe that “working hard” would annoy a “liberal”? That deserves some serious reflection.

This sentiment is common: the government doesn’t care about people who want to work–it only cares about people with money, and people who won’t work. I’ve heard variations of that many times. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Working people believe it’s true and they’re angry about it. And my guess is that sentiment is not restricted to a few ignorant rednecks in southside Virginia. My guess is that it is prevalent throughout rural and blue collar America.

But what if the emerging globalized technologically-advanced economy renders the working class irrelevant and leaves them with nothing to do? Who will buy the cheap consumer goods the automated factories are producing? Maybe the system is destined to consume itself.

Demographics dictate the future. And today a full 25% of humanity is between the age of 10 and 24. The vast majority of these young people are coming of age in the developing world, and they’re finding few opportunities. A million young people turn 18 in India every month. The number of Indians between 18 and 34 is roughly equal to the entire combined populations of the U.K., Canada and the U.S. This sort of demographic shift is occurring throughout the developed world, leading to massive waves of immigration and triggering more unrest. Youth unemployment is 25% in Europe and 17% in the U.S., despite not having the lopsided youth-dominated demographics of the developing world. (Read more about that HERE.)

Houston, we have a problem.

Somehow a system must emerge which provides meaningful employment for working class people. The solution won’t come easily, but it will begin, I believe, with attention to sustainability and rejection of growth-at-all-costs economics.

Just some rambling thoughts this morning. We live in interesting times.