We Baby Boomers have been around for a while. We've experienced the post-war boom of the 1950s and 60s, the malaise of the 1970s, the prosperity of the 1980s and '90s, and then ... whatever we've had since 2000. I'd like to get your reaction to a recent line of thinking, one that theorizes that the American Century, the era of American exceptionalism, the entire American Dream, is over and done with.
The most recent article I saw on the subject was "The Blip" by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in last week's New York Magazine.
Here's the theory.
For most of human history, up until the industrial revolution in the 1700s, life for the vast majority of people in the world hadn't changed. The lifestyle for most of humankind in the mid-1700s was not much different from their lifestyle in Roman times.
With industrialization -- the introduction of plows and mills and roads and canals -- economic growth sped up, improving life for many people, at least in Europe and America. Then just as the industrial revolution was reaching its limits, a second industrial revolution came along in the form of steam engines, electricity, and the mass production that brought us cars and airplanes and TVs and all the comforts of home.
But at some point around 1970 the effects of the second industrial revolution began to taper off -- at least in that frontier of well-being called America. Ever since, we have begun to revert back to the stagnation that preceded the industrial revolution, as evidenced by the average after-inflation wages of the typical American worker, which have gone nowhere in the last 40 years.
Yes, so the theory goes, the computer and the internet have brought more advances to civilization, perhaps even a third revolution. But this information revolution is not on the order of the telephone or the railroad, and the economic effects have been nowhere near as great or as long lasting.
What if the economic difficulties of recent decades are not the result of an energy crisis or a bursting housing bubble or the aging of the Baby Boomers, what if they are a harbinger a much more "normal" path of human progress, the one that existed for most of human history prior to 1750? What if the industrial revolution was not the wave of the future, but an aberration, a "blip" in the arc of history?
Robert Gordon of Northwestern University is one who professes this view. He set out his ideas in a 2012 paper Is U. S. Economic Growth Over? asserting that our greatest innovations are behind us, and predicting a dark future of "epochal decline in growth from the U. S. record of the last 150 years."
Some of his ideas have been seconded by other academics, from M.I.T. and elsewhere, agreeing that Gordon's economic evidence is "quite reasonable" and that people should begin to realize that the innovations of today will probably not transform the world to the extent that previous innovations have. In other words, we have nothing to look forward to but lower economic
growth, fewer opportunities for our children, and a more spartan
existence for all of us.
From my own perspective, it's hard to argue with Gordon's theory. When you look at the Baby Boomers who have been laid off in their 50s, with little or no chance for another job; when you look at the employment opportunities available to our college graduates -- many of them taking jobs for which no college degree is required -- and when you look at ... well, just look at Detroit, and a bunch of other hollowed-out industrial cities.
Yet many of these same academics don't go quite as far as Gordon. They point out that it's impossible to foresee what innovations will come along in the future. Who in 1970 imagined cell phones and laptop computers? So how can we imagine what will lead us forward in 2030 or 2040?
Many futurists see progress being made on the energy front, as we invent new technologies that will allow us to power our future without destroying our environment. Others see opportunity in the medical field, as we develop cures for cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and map out our genetic codes.
We have gone through uncertain days in our past. And it seems one of the great things about our current form of democratic capitalism is that it tends to be self-correcting. When energy becomes scarce, for example, people go to work developing new sources of power, from windmills to fracking, and they invent electric cars -- and the internet which allows people to communicate without getting into their cars at all.
Then look at the problems brought about by globalization and the resulting decline of American manufacturing. It's not a pretty sight. But, taking the long view, how much resentment can you really feel for the workers in Asia who have taken our jobs -- and thereby avoided starvation and climbed out of abject poverty? At least to some extent, our pain is their gain. We make less money, and find it more difficult to buy SUVs and make our mortgage payments. But they are finally able to move out of their mud huts and buy food for their children.
Obviously, this is an overgeneralization. But it is a trend. And yet, on a day to day basis, it's hard to see the silver lining behind the clouds. The current reality is that for the majority of people today, the American
Dream has become an illusion. The U.S today places among countries with the highest inequity and lowest social mobility in the developed world. And even college graduates have trouble finding a decent job.
I don't know. Maybe it's just like my mother said. Despite all the academic mumbo jumbo, it really just depends on which side of the bed you get out of in the morning.