By Ben Cohen: If you are reading this website, you're most likely to be educated, white and economically middle to upper middle class (at least that's what our demographics tracking software tells us). The opportunities for you in the workplace are probably pretty varied - you might be a doctor, a lawyer, a mid level manager, a financial analyst or work in the non-profit sector. To you, the world is an interesting and international place where you could, if you tried hard enough, become whatever you wanted to be.
But if you look at economic trends in America, people like you are dwindling and most people have far fewer pathways to interesting and well paying careers. There are many reasons for this, the major one being the shift away from industry and the wholesale financialization of the economy - a transformation that has seen speculation and deregulation as the major engines for economic growth. This has led to spurts of massive growth for the wealthiest Americans, followed by huge contractions in the economy (ie. the Wall St crash) that have disproportionately affected the middle class and poor.
This shift has also seen a huge erosion of labor rights given the overemphasis on capital. Labor markets need to be flexible (ie. it should be easy to hire and fire people) in order for companies to maneuver in the increasingly volatile global economy, meaning job security is fast becoming a thing of the past.
And as education costs soar, so does debt, and in an economy where there are no certainties this means only the rich can ensure a pathway for their children to succeed. For everyone else, going to school becomes a riskier and riskier prospect where going hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt may not be worth it in the long term.
As Eduardo Porter writes in The New York Times, the future of work in America is looking pretty bleak for most people, as they will increasingly be confined to jobs in the service sector - the most immune part of the economy to the effects of financialization and globalization:
The American labor market has been hollowing out for decades - losing many of the middle-skilled, relatively well-paid jobs in manufacturing that can be performed more cheaply by machines or workers overseas. It has split between a high end of well-educated workers, and a low end of less-educated workers performing jobs, mostly in the service sector, that cannot be outsourced or mechanized.
This process is not expected to reverse any time soon. According to government statistics, personal care aides will make up the fastest-growing occupation this decade. The Economic Policy Institute study found that some 57 percent of them live in poverty.
In an interesting article in Gawker, Hamilton Nolan notes that recent union battles in America represent the past and future of the US economy. On the one hand, there were the high skill union strikes in Long Beach California where blue collar workers making upwards of $100,000 a year demanded their jobs not be outsourced, while there was a move to unionize minimum wage fast food workers in New York. Nolan points out that given the shift towards service sector jobs, old fashioned high skilled union strikes will be a thing of the past:
The reality is that high-paying blue collar jobs that are able to be outsourced are not going to play a big role in the future of the average American worker. With a few exceptions, it's not possible for organized labor to hold those sweet jobs hostage from the forces of free trade and the international economy. A glance at America's decimated industrial sector will tell you that.
Income inequality in America is huge, and growing. The middle class, which was for generations full of those relatively well-paid blue collar workers, is shrinking. In the foreseeable future, the "average American worker" will not be a longshoreman, or an auto worker. He will be the guy taking orders at McDonald's.
There's a general theme within Leftist circles that unions are demonized in America - this isn't technically true - Americans don't hate unions per se, they hate poor people's unions. You rarely hear anyone criticize lawyer or doctor unions - there may be the odd complaint about unions in Hollywood and the entertainment industry, but more commonly, it's automobile workers, public employees, hotel workers and teachers who are the victims of much of the nation's scorn. They are held responsible for the collapse of their respective industries, the appalling results from the nation's high schools, and the budget problems in state governments.
Given most people will not be working in high skilled jobs in the future, it's probably time for a bit of attitude adjustment when it comes to unions. As Nolan points out:
For the average American, employee protests at Wal-Mart and McDonald's are far more significant than shutting down a huge port. McJobs may be the future. Let's at least try to make that future livable.
So if you find yourself waiting in long lines to pick up your Big Mac because most of the workers are on strike and demanding higher wages, don't get angry - it could be your kids working there. And remember - they'll be looking after you in your old age, so Mc Ds had better start paying more.