The New Normal

Don’t look now folks, but corporate profits are at an all time high while fewer Americans are working than at any time during the past three decades. And if that wasn’t enough to make you sit up and take notice, wages as a percentage of the overall economy are at an all time low. If you don’t believe me, consider this article that ran in Business Insider. If companies are finding ways to make more money with less people, where are all the good jobs that the politicians keep promising going to come from?

Total Wages as a share of GDP, from Business Insider from, Update: The Infamous Chart of Corporate Profits Vs. Total Wages

The truth is we can strike a dozen New Deals and soak up as much Trickle-down as one can stand, but nothing is going to bring back the corporate jobs that formerly anchored the middle class for one simple reason. Those jobs are becoming obsolete. Corporations make more profit when machines do those same jobs without the burden of pensions or benefits. As technology continues its steady and stupendous, disruptive march forward, this trend will continue. Some folks see this as a travesty, an unconscionable diversion from their hallowed American Dream. Others see it as an opportunity, perhaps the most exciting time in human history. I’ll bet you can guess which folks throw the better party.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone paying attention. “Traditional” jobs have been steadily eliminated for years. First, by outsourcing and now by innovation. Why then, was one of the most animated debates during this last election centered on jobs that both candidates know, full well, aren’t coming back? And why aren’t the people who run this country hosting an open conversation about how radically different our burgeoning new economy might be?

It’s because we’re being talked down to. It’s because the powers that be either don’t believe that we’re equipped with the mental facilities to process the truth about the profound change our society is currently undergoing, or it’s because admitting the truth would also be admitting their own impending obsolescence. Not only are the jobs, that Americans used to do, steadily becoming defunct, so too are many of the institutions that set policy. The Republicrats would do good just to get out of the way of innovation, much less make sense of it and provide useful leadership.

It’s these institutions that have bet our hopes for the future on an economy, that for the past three decades, has relied on personal, municipal, state, and federal deficits to maintain viability. We’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that our society will completely collapse without perpetual economic growth, and in a bid to maintain that growth, an unreasonable demand was created for things that no one needs or, much less, wants after the marketing wears off. The result is a society saturated with low quality goods of little importance, or what so many of us refer to as shit for short. We’ve reached a tipping point where we’ve created so much shit that our shitty goods are losing what little value they had. In the attics and basements of boomers all across America there are boxes and bags full of shit that is absolutely worthless. In fact, it’s a liability. We’ll spend untold time and resources when it comes time to pull it out of those houses and stuff it into landfills. Hindsight being 20/20, we can see clearly now that so much of our potential productivity was squandered in the factories and plants that pumped out what now amounts to the remnants of what can safely be dubbed the most recklessly wasteful time in human history.

I know what you’re thinking, you’re saying to yourself, “it’s easy to see how factory workers can be replaced by machines but what about doctors, journalists, architects, etc?”

All of these professions are based on having information and tools that were previously inaccessible to the average Joe in want of a smart phone. But now, nearly all of the knowledge ever amassed by humankind is accessible to everyone and nearly every gadget ever conceived of is being re-imagined to coexist inside one device that fits into the palm of your hand. It’s easy to forget how ridiculously profound this shift in humanity is, but technology has officially begun to effectively supplement cognition and like so many of the other astounding shifts in humanity, this too will continue. It may take longer to unwind professional jobs, and maybe not every job goes away, but computers have and will continue to, replace human workers at every strata of the workforce.

So what do you do when the engine that drove the 20th Century starts to sputter and choke and your worldview is challenged at every turn? We do what humanity has always done. We adapt and overcome. What are we really afraid of, that we won’t be able to afford our fair share of over-hyped, over-priced status symbols and plasticized would-be landfill fodder marketed at us through dubious media channels that succeed by keeping us fat, numb, and stupid? Are we afraid that we’ll have to choose hydrogenated, genetically modified corn starch over BPA laden, insecticide infused, canned vegetable stuffs instead of having both? The truth is, Hostess wasn’t killed by labor unions, they were taken down by the sudden realization that Twinkies aren’t really food in the purest sense of the word and eating too many might make your ass swell up and choke off your heart if you’re not careful.

So put away you’re lawnmower and do something useful with your yard like grow your own damn food. Turn off your t.v. and make your own damn media. Coordinate with your neighbors and find out what tools and other resources you can share amongst yourselves rather than doubling and tripling up on crap that empties your wallets and eventually end up in a landfill. Recycle everything!

Get up off your ass and re-engage because the world needs your attention, now more than ever.

Collectively, we represent the first generations of Americans who rely heavily on corporations for our well being. And clearly, judging by how sick, indebted, and divided we are, we the people are getting the shit end of the stick. Let the corporate cog-jobs go. There are other, more productive and satisfying ways to make a living. The things that machines can’t replicate are great ideas, compassion, inspiration, and imagination. Let’s build an economy that values these things and be happy that we’re devising ways to remove the monotony from our lives.

If you’re finding innovative ways to make a living, let’s hear it in the comments. We’d love to find you guys and share your stories about how you’re shaping the new economy.

@jmathewallen

About The Author

Publisher

Justin is a co-founder and publisher of What Weekly, Creative Strategist at What Works Studio, and co-founder of Light City.

  • Beemer10

    I really liked your comment on how “technology has officially begun to effectively supplement cognition”. I’m a bit of a luddite, and I don’t often see any mention of how technology will impact the development of humans. I’ve long felt (but I’ve never really had any hard evidence to go by) that any amazing technological advancement (e.g. having a handheld GPS device for every person, a smartphone) will necessarily be accompanied by some sort of diminishing of human cognition as you would put it (e.g. no one will be able to figure out maps anymore). 

    Other than that, great article. 

    • Justin

      I think you’re right but look at how many of us no longer no how to use a loom or butter churn or a printing press? Leaving behind these skills frees us up to learn higher ones that move technology forward. Maybe? What do you think?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=617112335 Jonathan Jeffer

    Back in the 50s, you had futurists talking about the leisure economy, where labor saving devices would free up human kind for higher pursuits.  The point missed was how all the value added from  that surplus productivity would be captured by a handful of super greedy people and demand would be manufactured by  shunted people towards never ending consumption of trivial crap designed with built in obsolescence.  Something else is possible.  It always was.  We have what we have because we have collwectively been willing to put up with it. 

    • Justin

      You’re absolutely right.

  • Lee Boot

    I couldn’t agree more, Justin. And I think a lot of us are on the same page. I think there is at least a latent, and probably very conscious and explicit understanding of what you’re talking about, but a lack of a focused movement A PRO versus ANTI thing to want, root, and work for. So I’ll see you and raise you. I propose that we pick BALTIMORE as the place where we start to rebuild our civilization into one that supplies people with a meaningful and sustainable way of life. This will involve several coordinated strategies, but here is just a small part of the picture—one I’ve come to as literally EVERYTHING I’ve bought in the last few years, from my refrigerator to my Toyota (alas) has turned out to be a complete piece of shit. Worthless crap. Forced obsolescence. CAN WE ENVISION, right now, a Greater Baltimore where we grow and make everything we can, OURSELVES—appliances, clothes, vehicles, computers—all at much higher quality than we most of can afford right now and supply an endless stream of excellent jobs in the process? How, you ask? I’m betting that the $1500 people pay for a medium quality range (I know, right?) or the $70-100 people pay for a men’s dress shirt that is well made, leaves plenty of room for local makers to do really, really well, and for all of us to get a better, maintainable product, at a slightly better price, and keep the $ in our local economy. In their march toward bigger profits for shareholders, and huge corporate overheads, major corporations have left the backdoor WIDE OPEN for the resourceful and skilled. There’s nothing we can’t do with the talent and resources around here. Who need f__king electronics on a stove?!?!

    • Justin

      Sounds good, let’s get started. What do we do first?

  • Justin

    “How do you teach good taste in the context of innovative thinking?” 
    That’s an excellent question. I think, first, you have to start with quality. Treating every project as important as the next, because the quality of work is a direct reflection on the individual who’s doing it. When you slow down and really focus on the quality of your work, you’ll begin to recognize what’s good and what’s not good and from their you develop good taste maybe? I think part of the challenge too, is for people to experience quality to understand the difference. Like with food, it’s only after I left suburbia and made a conscious effort to stay away from processes foods and try to eat as fresh as possible, did I truly understand the difference in the quality when I went back.