A half-century ago, 95 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today, years after the Great Recession ended, only 85 percent of men in that age group are employed, and in some beaten-down areas of the country, the numbers are more dismal still. Long-term joblessness is “the great American domestic crisis of the twenty-first century,” observes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, with the most affected communities surrendering to social despair and breakdown. The political alienation of these communities fueled the populist anger of the 2016 presidential race, giving us Bernie Sanders’s surprising rise on the left and, ultimately, President Donald Trump.
This special issue of City Journal, “The Shape of Work to Come,” explains what is causing the crisis of work and provides an ambitious, practical agenda for addressing that crisis. As Glaeser’s “The War on Work—and How to End It” explains, many proposed solutions to joblessness, including widening and extending unemployment and disability benefits, have actually worsened things, entrenching dependent ways of life. Such programs, Glaeser argues, should be reformed to encourage employment, not discourage it. Schools and vocational programs must be reimagined to give every American the skills required to thrive in an ever-mutating modern economy. And instead of suppressing entrepreneurial energies through entangling regulation, we need to open the economy fully to individual drive and ambition.
Technology—above all, artificial intelligence and robotics—is accelerating economic change. In “The Mother of All Disruptions,”Kay Hymowitz reports on just how radical the transformation will be—and which occupations are most likely to become obsolete (at least for humans). They won’t just be the kind of physical jobs that, whatever their drudgery, inculcated real virtues (see Victor Davis Hanson’s “Brawn in an Age of Brains”), Hymowitz notes; many white-collar jobs will vanish, too, including in fields like medicine and law.
Adjusting to this new economy will indeed require an upgrade in the way we teach and train Americans, as Glaeser warns. In “Vocational Ed, Reborn,” Steven Malanga describes some exciting developments in career and technical training. This kind of practical instruction had fallen on hard times in recent decades, partly because of the misguided consensus that four-year college degrees were right for every student. Thanks to a handful of smart firms, educators, and philanthropies, Malanga shows, some twenty-first-century vocational programs are achieving impressive results. The challenge will be to expand on these successes. Charles Upton Sahm’s “American Dream Machine” offers another encouraging model: the City University of New York, a public system of 11 senior colleges and seven community colleges that is giving poor kids a hand up—into employment and the middle class. Completing our educational package, Paul Beston’s “When High Schools Shaped America’s Destiny” shows how an early-twentieth-century grassroots movement built—virtually overnight—a mass secondary education system that helped propel the nation into global leadership. It’s a reminder of America’s can-do spirit, which we need again now.
The joblessness crisis has a cultural component, maintains Aaron Renn, whose “Trouble in Trump County, USA” sketches a disturbing portrait of Scott, Indiana, a microcosm of what Hillary Clinton would call “deplorable” America and where Renn is from originally. Family breakdown and opioid abuse have left many Scott residents poor candidates for being hired, including for nearby Louisville’s abundant manufacturing jobs. County and city leaders are taking bold steps to turn things around, however, and Renn thinks that they may be onto something.
There’s much more in “The Shape of Work to Come”—from Oren Cass, on a pro-market role for organized labor in the new economy, to Howard Husock’s report on the best ways to keep ex-convicts from re-offending; from Laura Vanderkam, on how we can make it easier for stay-at-home moms to work part-time, to Milton Ezrati’s defense of globalization, done right. We even have a short story, “The End of the Working Day,” by best-selling novelist Andrew Klavan, an imaginative take on what a post-work world might look like.
—Brian C. Anderson