By Richard S. Davis
“The mass of men,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.”
According to a recent survey published by Rutgers University, we’re more desperate and less quiet. Five years into the recovery, researchers say Americans are dispirited and pessimistic.
The findings offer a grim assessment of the toll taken by the recession and its aftermath. They note a widespread perception that “the recession has brought about permanent changes to the economy and that many aspects of American life will never return to the way they were.”
Report co-author Carl Van Horn says, “The slow, uneven, and painful recovery left Americans deeply pessimistic about the economy, their personal finances, and prospects for the next generation.”
The extensive economic and psychological damage done by the recession is personal, not hypothetical. Two-thirds of those surveyed reported that the downturn affected their standard of living. The analysts conclude, “one in six Americans can be said to have been devastated by the Great Recession, reporting a major and permanent change in their lifestyle.”
The workplace offers little relief. The Rutgers team summarizes the findings this way: “The typical American worker lives a precarious and doleful existence — unhappy, poorly paid and fearful about losing his or her job.” But they also report, “63 percent of workers say they are satisfied with their jobs.”
There’s no question that the gloomy outlook accurately reflects some stark economic conditions. Labor force participation is down, long-term unemployment rates are high, and — according to a Brookings Institution report cited by Rutgers — it will take until early 2019 for the economy to recover fully.
While the Rutgers researchers say “the American dream has taken a big hit,” 58 percent of Americans still “believe that people who want to get ahead can work hard and make it.”
And despite the overall pessimistic portrait of America painted by the analysts, I think they overstate the despair. It’s not insignificant that this deep into the flawed recovery, majorities are satisfied with their jobs and believe hard work pays off. That’s a solid foundation on which to build.
Let’s concede that things will not return to the way they were before the recession. Major disruptions inevitably result in fundamental transformation. In the midst of change, it’s often hard to recognize the opportunities ahead.
Technological change has accelerated during and following the recession. In 2011 President Obama cited ATMs and airport kiosks as factors fueling unemployment. Critics rightly pointed out that new technologies increase productivity, create unforeseen employment opportunities and transform market economies.
Still, as Mark P. Mills writes in Forbes magazine, “In the short term, the Luddites are right.” The period of creative destruction puts many workers and business owners out of work. And the work of the future continues to demand more training and education than the work it replaces.
A Georgetown University study finds that some postsecondary education will be required for 65 percent of all jobs by 2020. That’s up from 28 percent in 1973. At the same time, demand for jobs requiring a high school diploma or less will continue to decline.
While the Rutgers survey found that 44 percent of Americans believe there is a “mismatch between jobs and skills where workers will have to take jobs below their skill level,” employers identify a different skills gap. The Boston Consulting Group predicts a shortage of qualified workers will lead to 50,000 unfilled jobs in our state in 2017 because employers will be unable to recruit workers possessing the necessary skills, primarily in science, technology, engineering and math.
More and better education for students and displaced workers is necessary to ease the transition to the post-recession economy. Government clearly has a role to play in assuring better educational outcomes.
The future must also see an entrepreneurial renaissance, made possible by the ubiquity of new technology. Government can help by removing or reducing regulatory and tax barriers to business formation.
In the sentence following his famous “quiet desperation” assertion, Thoreau wrote, “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
There’s no going back. There shouldn’t be. But Americans should never be resigned to a future devoid of opportunity, creative discontent and dynamic entrepreneurialism.
Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. Email firstname.lastname@example.org