Employment and employment trends have always been an area of concern for many people. But we have, at least since the 1970s, seen a steady rise in the number of Americans who have suddenly, and in some cases not so suddenly, found themselves unemployed, underemployed, partially employed, self-employed, or in some other category that essentially means that they are having trouble finding the work they want.
There are many causes. Some cite the ‘opening’ of China and the former Soviet states. Others cite the advances in information technologies, robotics, and automation. Still others cite the increased mobility of capital and workers across borders; our myopic focus upon secondary education that prepares all students to pursue a college degree instead of offering them vocational training for the kinds of skilled ‘blue-collar’ jobs that we need and that many students would actually prefer; outsized compensation expectations that greatly exceed the pay expectations that foreigners have; and the problems that some Americans have in meeting job qualifications or passing drug tests. And still others cite the adversarial attitudes that some American workers assumed toward their employers and the corporations during the good years. But whatever the cause, many American workers now find themselves in a highly competitive global labor market in which they are forced to compete both with machines and with foreign workers who are well-educated, highly skilled, motivated, capable, hungry, and willing to work for a fraction of the pay that American workers could once demand, and still want. The result is that many high-paying ‘American jobs’ have been ‘outsourced’ to foreign countries that have cheaper labor and more favorable governmental employment and taxation policies ¾and many others have been ‘insourced’ to immigrants who are able and willing to work for less.
Forty years ago, the employment rates for male high school graduates were the same as those for male college graduates. But today there are fewer job opportunities for high school graduates, additional training or certification is needed in many fields, and a growing number of male high school graduates are ‘choosing’ not to work at all. But many employers, at the very same time, are having difficulties finding workers with the right job skills and personal characteristics to fill the jobs they have to offer. We have all heard some jobs described as ‘jobs that Americans do not want to do’. But it should seem clear that there are some jobs that employers no longer want, or trust, Americans to do.
Whatever the cause, we now seem to be living in a world in which we can produce more than we can sell, and produce it with fewer workers than ever before. Barring unforeseen innovations, we may be moving into a future in which increasingly fewer workers will be needed, the job market will become increasingly more competitive, and some Americans will find it even more difficult to compete. Here, increased competition may mean that some jobs will become highly rewarding for people with valuable and rare skill-sets, experience, and knowledge. But many Americans may be forced to scale back their expectations, regardless of the color of their collars, as they lose jobs to foreign workers, immigrants, and machines¾and many others may find themselves permanently unemployed, if not unemployable. This situation makes the future of employment an area of concern for many Americans.
This project explores concerns that Americans may have about the future of employment in the United States. It also explores and develops contrasting conceptual policy possibilities for addressing them. In doing so, its panelists reexamined some of our most basic assumptions regarding the role of work, both in our society and in the individual lives of its members.
Project Update – April 2015: The panels’ discussions, followed by test discussions, have culminated in a published discussion guide, which is available both online, by clicking on the cover image above, or as a pdf download (20 pages/604 KB) by clicking on the blue button in the bar to the right.