It is easy to forget the struggles of one's past when life has moved on. It's easy to assume our personal experiences are representative of most. My recent research, however, has revealed this to be untrue. In many parts of America, there are macro and micro-economic forces and trends that are negatively impacting life opportunities, careers, hope and the quality of the human experience.
When a customer complains of bad customer service, how should the business respond? Apologize, empathize and ensure it doesn't happen again. If businesses ignore these complaints they will quickly suffer the results. It's not too dissimilar when it comes to leading and/or governing constituents. Citizens also have experiences on a spectrum of good to bad. These human experiences make up a person's quality of life and are critically important to them.
Businesses cannot thrive, if their customers aren't thriving. Countries can't thrive, if their citizens are not thriving. What follows is a look at the human experience from the perspective of the less educated and underemployed workers in America.
For many Americans, deindustrialization has reduced the quality of their human experience. Many experience delayed and strained marriages, broken and delayed families, poor physical and mental health, addictions, diminished local economies, and even a reduced sense of worth, status, purpose and hope. What is causing these declines in fortune? Let’s take a look at deindustrialization, technological innovations and some additional variables that have worked symbiotically to create these unfortunate human experiences.
- The USA experienced a significant decline in manufacturing employment across the country. Manufacturing jobs declined by 3.4 million between 2001 and 2007 and by an additional 2.3 million during the Great Recession, for a total of 5.7 million jobs lost.
- The decline in “good” manufacturing jobs that paid a living wage, dealt a heavy blow to non-metropolitan areas.
- They saw elites and existing political systems doing nothing to address the long-term decline in their quality of life.
- Increases in trade with China led to many closures of US businesses and large job losses in low-tech manufacturing industries such as textiles, apparel, furniture, and toys.
- Globalization and foreign competition further reduced wages.
- New technologies automated the more routine tasks such as clerical occupations and factory work resulting in even lower wages and more reductions in “good” jobs.
- New innovations, AI and automation not only reduced jobs, but increased the wage gap between the top and the bottom earners.
- As AI innovations emerged, they focused mostly on replacing or reducing employed humans, rather than increasing the productivity of existing humans.
- Technological innovations, globalization, market forces, plus cloud-based ecosystems all seemed to work against America’s less educated workers.
- Employers encouraged workers to embrace new technologies and automation only to have these negatively impact their jobs, wages and future opportunities.
- During these painful times for the less educated, the opportunities and wages for elites - the professionals and leaders in managerial, engineering, finance, consulting, and design occupations increased. In fact, the top 10% of earners experienced rapid income increases during this same period.
- The role of trade unions also diminished significantly during these times leaving workers with less voice, influence and power to negotiate better wages and benefits.
- Increasingly the traditional political party of the working person, the Democrats, redirected their focus to issues supporting emerging constituent groups including African Americans; women’s rights activists; pro-choice advocates, proponents of ethnic diversity, sexual freedom and self-expressive individualism.
- Less educated white Americans increasingly felt disenfranchised, marginalized and ignored within their traditional political party affiliations.
- They saw elites focusing on saving trees, forests, plants, animals, clean air, clean water, etc., but not on solving their own suffering.
- Many of these less educated workers were socially conservative, Christian and religiously observant. They felt increasingly out of place and disrespected by the elites inside this transforming political party.
- The less educated workers increasingly felt maligned, beleaguered and mocked by the more educated.
- Science was increasingly weaponized to contradict or oppose their religious beliefs, rituals, practices, mental frameworks and traditions.
- They believed that elites wanted to restrict their freedoms, and to control and regulate how they worshiped and lived their lives. Covid-19 restrictions, lockdowns and regulations proved this point in their minds.
- They believed "godless" elites wanted to tell them how to behave—and, worse, how to think. When they complained, elites accused them of racism, ignorance and xenophobia.
- They saw elites using laws and government to make them act in violation of their deepest religious beliefs—making the Little Sisters of the Poor cover contraception, forcing public schools to allow entrance to bathrooms based on gender identity, etc.
- They felt elites held them in contempt.
- Resentment among the less educated and underemployed increasingly grew at the intersection of race, culture, class, and geography.
- They believed elites wanted to take their guns away from them for the purpose of controlling them. For many people, guns represented a “societal equalizer” that gave them power and control over life and death and afforded freedoms.
- Many small towns and rural communities, with their youth immigrating to bigger metropolitan areas with more opportunities, questioned whether they had any future. A sense of loss weighed on them - especially when they saw other areas rising and prospering.
- Non-metropolitan areas resented an elite culture that seemed to bask in the light and influence of big city liberal America, rather than around industrial centers and traditional conservative small-town America.
- They believed elites had rewritten the rules for success to favor themselves.
- They believed that elites had established a meritocracy based on their education, families, university and professional networks, resources, and inside knowledge of the rules and an understanding of technologies and the new economy.
- They didn't respect the opinions of elite experts, believing they were biased against them and sought to manipulate and control.
- They didn't respect the elite media they believed was not accurately reporting their reality and human experience.
- They were drawn to news and media sources, and politicians that identified with and empathized with their pain, grievances, struggles and human experience.
- They thought elites were hypocrites. Elites claimed to support free speech—until someone said something they didn't like.
- Less educated workers have reasons to fear the future. Too few leaders are focused on improving their very real human experience.
This necessarily incomplete list goes a long way to explaining why many workers have legitimate concerns, struggles, grievances and increasing levels of resentment. Resentment is a destructive emotion that is “felt again,” and again. Anger can flare up and burn out, but resentment lingers. Resentful people don’t forgive or forget. They often feel others are out to destroy their sense of self-worth and status, and will resist with all their strength. Resentment is intensely powerful, destructive and unpredictable – like a tsunami or an earthquake.
If technology is not serving the common good and improving our human experience now and in the future, then it might be time to rethink our approach to be more inclusive and purposeful.
Partner | Futurist at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.