I worry sometimes. Namely I worry about my friends and people younger than I am in general. I worry about most of my friends struggling in life. Most of my friends are buried in debts, mostly student loans, that they will be lucky if they ever pay off. And most of my friends weren’t that dumb with their money or life decisions. Most of my friends went to college because 1) we were told that was a path to a decent career and 2) we looked around and saw that there were no jobs that paid decently requiring only a high school degree. Long gone are the days when someone could get a job as a factory hand or farm worker in their early twenties and hold onto that job for over forty years and retire with a paid off home, pension, and health insurance.
I’m seeing my friends struggle in their day to day lives. Most are working a full time job and a part time job or a side gig. Almost none of them own houses. The only one of my close friends who owns a house is a high school teacher in a small town. And he didn’t buy his house until he was in his late 30s. They don’t own houses simply because they can’t afford a house and student debts. I also have friends who have had medical emergencies. One friend had to file for bankruptcy for medical bills. One friend is fighting cancer, divorced, lost her children, and is still on the waiting list for disability. Another friend of mine got a master’s degree only to find the best job she could get in a mid sized city doesn’t pay even 40 grand a year. Her husband also works a low paying job and moonlights as an Uber driver. He too has lots of student debt.
Now I know some unsympathetic people will be thinking, “well, that’s what they get for not majoring in STEM or going to the military.” Well, one of my brother’s best friends pulled straight 4.0 all the way through high school and college and still got rejected for a state medical school at least three times before he was accepted. As far as I know, he now has a decent career working in a medical lab. Another of my brother’s friends didn’t finish medical school and residencies until he was in his thirties because of finances and run around from the schools. Now he works as an emergency search and rescue doctor. One of my cousins went to trade school for two years to become an electrician. He worked for a couple railroads, got married, has four kids, and owns a small acreage in rural Nebraska. But, he is now essentially self employed due to the inconsistent nature of railroad employment and his wife has had medical problems to where I think she had to give up her job as a nurse’s aide. Another cousin works in web development. Even though he has had to work for several different firms and sometimes take free lance work, he is doing alright because he has skills that are in demand. At least for the time being.
Can we really expect most people to become doctors, nurses, webpage designers, computer coders, engineers, tradesmen, etc? Yet that is all I hear out of “experts” and “business leaders.” While I think it admirable that people like Mike Rowe want to encourage more people to consider the trades like plumbing, electrician, welding, carpentry, etc, I fear that too much emphasis on the trades will eventually lead the same problem that people who majored in business, law, humanities, liberal arts, etc. are facing now. Twenty years ago, we were told to go to college and get a degree. Many of us did only to find that every kid in the developed world was given that advice. Now the degree doesn’t go nearly as far as it did even forty years ago, primarily because of so many people having degrees. Then the kids were told “get a masters” or “do unpaid internships”. Many did only to find that they had six figures in student loans to qualify for jobs that will never pay enough to pay off the loans, let alone pay off a house or even start a family in some cases.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if young people or my friends are angry about this setup. Because while some jobs have been outsourced to cheaper places, many more were taken over by automation. I have a friend who works in a call center for a bank. I fear it’s only a matter of time before his job gets automated. And, of course, no one in power cares about the twenty and thirty somethings struggling. They didn’t even care about the forty something auto or steel workers who lost their jobs to machines and outsourcing.
And it’s no longer just the US or Europe that is outsourcing and automating jobs. Even China is automating and outsourcing. Just a few weeks ago I bought some shirts online that were made in a small African country I had to look up on a map. The US and Europe are just further along in this transition to a highly automated economy.
And of course, the US doesn’t have very good social safety nets or any empathy for those who lost their jobs or are struggling to make ends meet. My elders like to brag about how well America is doing, how well we take care of our own, and how we are a great Christian nation. If we cared about our own, than we wouldn’t be having an opioid crisis, mass shootings every day, increasing rates of mental illness, increased suicide rates (especially among middle aged men), and protests in every major city on a daily basis. For our boasting about being such a Christian nation, we certainly don’t care about those who are misfortunate and had a rough go. Such hypocrisy.
I have no idea how many times I was told “get a job you bum”, “man up”, or “McDonalds and Wal Mart are hiring”. I, and millions of people in my age bracket and lower did everything we were told. We still struggle. And we don’t have any empathy from anyone, not our rulers, not our businesses, not our parents, not our schools, not our churches, and not even from each other.
Unionizing is not an option like it was a hundred years ago because most jobs can or will be outsourced or taken over by machines. Sure we are on the road to an automated economy where most of the grunt work is done by machines and computers. But, what is the point if 1) we don’t ditch this idea that everyone has to be defined by what they do for money, 2) most people can’t afford anything beyond the basics because most jobs are done by machines, 3) we have few social safety nets to make up for the fact that most people aren’t able to work in fields that can’t be easily automated.
We may need some things like universal health care, universal basic income, free continuing education, complete overhauls of tax systems, and a general overall shift in public attitudes towards work and compassion for others. But I don’t see this happening anytime soon, at least not in the US. I don’t think it will happen in the US in my lifetime simply because most of my countrymen don’t have empathy. Our leaders certainly don’t.
I do believe if our species can survive this transition, which is probably the greatest transition since people settled down and started farming instead of hunting, fishing, and gathering thousands of years ago, our descendants can have a really cool future where creativity and science can bloom. But, I fear the transition will be a lot tougher than it has to be simply because of many people’s attitudes towards work and their fellow man. I fear we will lose a few generations and much of their gifts in this transition. But I guess we as a species lost short term to ultimately be better off when the Industrial Revolution began back in the late 1700s. I do have great hope for the long term outlook for civilization and our species, but I fear it will be brutal getting there. And the fact that I won’t live long enough to see the fruits of the seeds being planted today fills me with great sadness.