The Dwindling Power of a College Degree
The 2012 presidential election can be seen as offering a choice between two visions of how to return us to this country’s golden age — from roughly 1945 to around 1973 — when working life was most secure for many Americans, particularly white, middle-class men. President Obama said his jobs plan was for people who believed “if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be rewarded.” Mitt Romney explained his goal was to restore hope for “folks who grew up believing that if they played by the rules … they would have the chance to build a good life.” But these days, many workers have lost a near guarantee on a decent wage and benefits — and their careers are likely to have much more volatility (great years; bad years; confusing, mediocre years) than their parents’ ever did. So when did the rules change?
It has been hard to keep track. Over the past four decades, we have experienced the oil embargo, Carter-era malaise and a few recessions. Mixed in were the thrills of the late 1990s and mid-aughts, when it seemed as if you were a sap if you weren’t getting rich or at least trying. But these dramas prevented many of us from realizing that the economic logic was changing fundamentally. Starting in the 1970s, labor was upended by a lot more than just formal government work rules. Increased global trade devastated workers in many industries, especially textiles, apparel, toys, furniture and electronics assembly. Computers and other technological innovations had an arguably greater impact. While factories continue to make more stuff in the United States than ever before, employment in them has collapsed.
Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in “Mad Men,” and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.
As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that “Mad Men” office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It’s horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.