According to a new survey by the vaunted Pew Research Center, Americans have ratcheted downward their expectation of the good life to the point where merely having a job — more precise-like, a “secure job” — is enough to warrant the dignified moniker of “middle class.” The branches of that good life the job tree once supported, like a home and two cars, have been hacked away, prompting folks polled to cling to the trunk itself. Following merely having a decent gig, health insurance is considered the second most certain marker of a solid middle class existence reports the same survey. That is to say, something any Canadian citizen possesses by virtue of being born in that country is considered something to which one can only aspire stateside.
Some neo-liberals — which is a term only ever used by non-neo-liberals it seems — refer to a “great stagnation” when talking about the current economic doldrums. It’s a bit of phraseology coined by tepid libertarian Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, a bastion of classical liberal econo-minding. The Great Stagnation hypothesis purports to explain why last century saw the construction of highways and space stations, and why this one glimpses only angry birds.
So too do Millennials look forward to diminished horizons. Their generalized generational doom is the stuff of mainstream press coverage, but certain details garner less attention. The twenty-somethings are giving up driving say studies, clocking in 20% fewer miles than their peers just a decade ago. Some are even forgoing a driver’s license altogether. Folks speculate it’s a matter of shifting values — public transportation and bikes are the socially conscious choice now — but it seems an amazing coincidence that the latter are less pricey alternatives to laying down cash for a clunker, filling it with petrol, and insuring it lest it be side-swiped by a garbage truck (a fate that recently befell Katie Holmes and baby Suri, roughly a Millenial duo, one supposes, if the latter’s age is subtracted from the former’s).
It’s tough out there for a generation looking at some of the bleakest job prospects since the time of the Dust Bowl. For those with the new B.A., an M.A., or the new M.A. – a Ph.D – they and the current job market are getting along swimmingly. But for everyone else it looks to be a perpetual summer with no liquid(ity) relief in sight.
Unless, that is, you’re a bright young thing with less a knack for the written word and more for writing code. Silicon Valley figurehead and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen swears that in the future, the economic battleground will converge on a STEM field somewhere in northern California, in a civil war of sorts pitting those who take orders from machines on one side and those who bark orders to said machines on the other. The flood of market-unfriendly graduates in the humanities and soft sciences that economist Alexander Tabarrok observes make up much of the Occupy movement will be outshined by those who took up a (S)cience, (T)echnology or (E)ngineering (M)ajor at their alma mater. As another of the dismal scientists have pointed out, if the rest of the economy had grown in previous decades at anything like the tech sector, there’d now be two job openings for every American.
But what would prosperity created almost solely by folks with back-end dexterity be like for everyone else? Salon founder David Talbot has seen the future of such prosperity, and while it works, it may very well be no boon.com to civil society in one of its biggest hubs:
“The tech crowd, for the most part, has yet to spread its wealth around in ways that make a visible difference in the life of the city,” Talbot writes for San Francisco Magazine. “Overall, a sense of libertarian stinginess prevails among San Francisco’s digital elite.” Talbot recalls a parallel discussion from the city’s first tech boom a decade ago, when the relative demerits of the “cyber-selfish” were likewise being called out.
So is this an unstoppable trend? Will we see a kind of reserve army of labor possessing zero marginal productivity — yes, zero — toiling alongside a verifiable (and certifiable) knowledge caste of narcissists? Let’s hope not. If it’s going to take more and more brainpower to acquire less and less stuff, then the Great Stagnation could very well boil over into a Great Conflagration, in which so-called “hipsters on food stamps” square off against the tech-industry’s catered lunches for a shrinking piece of the pie.