U.S. Education and the Unlikelihood of Upward Mobility in the U.S. in the Next Era

For those of us working in academia, these are trying times. For futurists, like myself, who try to predict trends and impact of social pressures, emerging technologies, legislation, economics, etc., these are truly alarming times.

There are three converging forces that will impact capitalistic countries in remarkable ways. The first is the increasing technological requirements that jobs will require. Technology, including robotics and AI, are extending human reach, increasing efficiency, and essentially allowing a single person to do the jobs of potentially hundreds of people through automation and autonomy. This puts a downward pressure on job demand because there is less need for more workers to produce the same amount of goods and services. It puts at least an equivalent if not greater upward pressure on supply of products and it also tends to make businesses far more profitable. This results in cheaper products (great for consumers) and higher profits for companies. I know this area very well because I work in software for autonomy and distributed AI. I see what’s coming in a way most people don’t or can’t.

The first converging force noted above causes a second force to amplify a problem here. Businesses have been rewarding executives and management persons with increasingly larger shares of corporate profits. This has caused a pretty massive wealth divide in the U.S. The ratios of corporate executive earnings are absolutely phenomenal in the U.S. and have changed dramatically over the past century. CEO to an average worker pay tends to hover around 350:1 now. There are exceptions, and that’s great, but in general, companies are looking at their executives as the profit drivers. With the first force, automation, they’re not exactly wrong. If you can automate your entire work force, the only people who matter are the people who are managing the autonomy. Everyone else is essentially replaceable and can be paid low wages. A famous infographic based on recent surveys became a viral hit and is worth watching

The second force is exacerbated by the lax corporate merger environment and the willingness to accept oligopolies and even monopolies that discourage competition and increase profits. This is a very anti-capitalist situation because the entire idea of capitalism is to encourage diversity in the market place, not to centralize entire industries in everything from steel to sunglasses, from cable TV to radio, from newspapers to military contractors. John Oliver did a really good job at describing the current corporate merger and acquisitions environment in his segment here:

The third converging force is an effect of the current budgeting for education and outsourcing. Education in technology and automation, especially, can help offset the effects of the second force (profit concentration in executives and management) by creating a skilled workforce that make companies more diverse in skills and more effective and efficient at creating and maintaining new products or business services. In the U.S., this has, so far, been a sort of saving grace in hubs such as Silicon Valley, Austin Texas, etc. However, we see a major assault (sorry, but I can see no other way to really characterize this right now) on Education funding.

In preparation for the proposed tax cuts for wealthy persons, especially, in the current FY18 congressional agenda, the House and Senate are looking for places to cut spending in order to make the Republican tax cuts have a smaller bottom line effect on budget. There does not appear to be any real economic driver in the current plans, as far as I or anyone else can tell, that would reduce our actual debt. This is really more about maintaining the status quo of gaining debt about as quickly as before while also providing for a truly massive tax cut to the wealthier segments of the U.S. You can read more about the recent House bill to cut Education funding here.

I am in the current middle class but I grew up in the poor and lower middle class. I earned my PhD through a variety of helpful public programs and working multiple jobs waiting tables and applying for my own research scholarships. One of the programs that greatly aided my ability to attend university when my parents could not afford to pay my tuition was the Pell Grant system. The current Republican plan approved in the House will cut 78.3 billion dollars from Pell, directly, to remove this education option from the poor and middle class and would reacquire 3.3 billion from the Pell surplus that helps pay for the program.

The latter would remove Pell Grant availability for an estimated 900,000 students in the U.S., putting greater pressure on social mobility and removing many poor and lower middle class, especially, from entering the skilled worker workpool. It essentially contributes to a growing wealth inequality in the U.S. It also removes the possibility of a majority of the U.S. workforce participating in the skilled labor force, will impact U.S. GDP since we will have a much less educated workforce to create new small business or realize technological innovations, and will ultimately force us into the absolute requirement to outsource nearly all of our technical innovation and high skilled labor. The results of cutting Pell, especially, will be to put more students in debt, so that they are less likely to leave their first job and are beholden to student debt payments. It makes them more likely to accept pay cuts and disproportionate incomes compared to upper management.

I cannot stress enough that as a futurist, the current legislative agenda, especially as it pertains to educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, teachers, manufacturers, and skilled labor force, is remarkably appalling. I’m very worried about where our workforce is going to be in the future, and with where we are heading in regards to barriers of entry for business and growth. We are entering an era of technology, automation, and even growth into space. If we continue down this path, we will not be as competitive on the world stage in an age of technology and automation, and we are going to be especially non-competitive in anything other than investment and wealth management for expansion into new areas like space. This will be largely due to the fact that we’ll have fewer skilled labor to compete in technological areas.

What can we do?

Ultimately, all we have power to do right now is vote, protest, and make our voices heard. Contact your congressman or congresswoman and ask them to fight for a skilled technical workforce. When it comes down to the next election, try not to allow yourself to be pigeonholed into single issue voter categories such as abortion rights or gun control. Instead, look toward the future, and try to make sure the candidates we are electing are on the right track in regards to the economic mobility and happiness of our future generations. Otherwise, we’re all just spectators to history and the progress of other countries who value education and a skilled workforce.

 

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About Rex Jameson
Rex Jameson is the author of the three novels in the Primal Patterns series and half a dozen short stories. An avid history buff and an unabashed nerd with an appetite for science fiction and fantasy, he loves to create complex speculative fiction with layered characters. He earned a PhD in Computer Science at Vanderbilt University and researches distributed artificial intelligence in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Rex and his wife Jenny live in Pittsburgh where they enjoy hosting family and friends.

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