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29 August 2010

In reply to Winton Bates, on whether the next generation will have it even worse

The following is intended as a comment to Winton Bates' post titled Are Americans pessimistic about the prospects for the next generation?

Speaking as a 'Generation X' American (born 1965) I'm inclined to believe that (1) my generation's coming-of-age years occurred during that ratcheting-down of working class expectations called Reaganomics, (2) future generations can expect further ratcheting down of expectations and (3) the high point of American civilization was what was called the 'post-war period,' maybe 1946-1979. Some put its definitive end as early as 1973 (OPEC embargo). I'll go along with that, but human resources made a strong campaign of working with rather than against the trends circa 1980; what Jacob Hacker has termed the Risk Shift.

Whether the American standard of living is rising or falling, it should be undisputed that the structural trend is for Americans of modest means to be expected to eat more and more of the risk inherent in enterprise. All of the trends in human resources practice point in this direction, be it the trend from union to non-union workplaces, gainful (permanent, full-time) to 'contingent' employment, employee status to 'independent contractor' status, fee-per-service to HMO in health benefits, and defined benefit to defined contribution in retiree benefits. I would say that whatever gains (if any) have been made in median income have been more than offset by the losses in economic security. Even if it's true that risk was systematically underpriced by employers and insurers (perhaps due to incompetence or lack of 20-20 hindsight) during the postwar period, that underpricing enhanced quality of life in very tangible ways.

I think at least the next two or so generations are facing a continuation of this trend. For them, debt-financing of education, unpaid internships, attrition hiring, and self-employment by default are being added to the expectations placed on individuals generally.

There are of course many very important ways in which the present is much better than postwar America, which was far more racist and sexist. It was also more bureaucratic and conformist, but in these areas I think the present-day trend toward a surveillance state, and more significantly, a surveillance workplace, more than cancels out the relative cultural freedom, which in practice has more to do with expression than with substantive rebellion.

I don't expect a reversal of the Risk Shift trend until the painful market correction between global-north and global-south wage expectations has run its course to equilibrium. I think the odds are against this particular elephant being swallowed and digested during my lifetime. The only hope for a mercifully quick (though possibly more traumatic) resolution of these structural inequities is to 'liberalize' human migration with as much ideological ram-rodding as has been applied to the 'liberalization' of trade and of capital flows. The necessary adjustment of global-north consumption norms to the reality of global warming should also help, as will the projection that we will probably clear the population hump (though at a staggering 9 billion) by about mid-century.

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