I was struck recently by a Wall Street Journal online opinion column by Ben Sasse, junior U.S. senator from Nebraska and a historian and ex-college president. While the column (which he based on a speech he gave to Colorado's Steamboat Institute) eventually veered more into other areas, his lead-in was about how America is undergoing what is probably the "largest economic disruption in recorded human history."

Sasse's column referred to societies evolving from hunter-gatherers to farmers to factory workers to - whatever we are now:

"Sometimes we call it the information-technology economy, the knowledge economy, the service economy, the digital economy. Sociologists call it the 'postindustrial' economy, which is another way of saying 'we don't have anything to call it.' "

I remember reading and hearing much more about such depictions of our economy about 20 years ago, as writers and commentators pondered the significance of the turn of the 21st century, but I think they were a little ahead of the curve.

The real impact of economic disruption is being felt now by the average person.

Of course, the internet was well on its way to ubiquity and American manufacturers shedding jobs by the year 2000. Huge changes were underway, but possibly it took one more generation to come along for widespread disruption to set in.

Along with the other gaps in modern American society - by gender, race/ethnicity, income and so on - there is a workforce gap, between people who, as Sasse wrote, "spend (his) career at one company" and those who "switch jobs and industries at a more rapid pace."

Another way to characterize it: the factory worker or shop owner whose work has little changed in 30 years versus the worker in the "gig economy," who is not attached to a single employer or single line of work. The latter is most often characterized as the future, the traditional job as an endangered species.

It is arresting to see the pace of bankruptcies of longtime brand-name retailers just in the past six months. Also, the spike in reports of new ways that all kinds of companies are finding to employ robots and automation instead of humans. Self-driving Uber, anyone?

The real worry is the inexorable nature of the changes that are happening now, because it can leave too many people behind. Sasse wrote of the need for us "to create a society of lifelong learners," in which people in their 40s and 50s "get retrained and have the will and the chutzpah and the tools and the social network to get another job."

Retraining is buried in the campaign platform for just about every candidate for office in this country, but as Sasse writes, it "doesn't happen enough."

That's an understatement. The language about job retraining in most campaigns, and used by most employers, probably was written 20 years ago and doesn't reflect the needs or concerns of the people who need retraining now, if they are going to continue to make a decent living for the next 20 or 30 years.

Retraining is hard - harder than replacing older workers with younger people who earn less - or even, I suppose, robots. I would rather that candidates for office not even speak of retraining unless they begin to take it seriously. I have a little more sympathy for employers, who might wish to keep longtime employees, but who have to compete with more modern companies and run a profit.

The point is: How do we close the workforce gap? Giving up on retraining (and older workers) should not be an option.


Ted Rayburn is business editor for The Gazette; 636-0194 or ted.rayburn@gazette.com.

Load comments