La rentrée is what the French call this time of year: the re-entry. Everything comes to a stop in August; it is too hot to work, and the whole country slows down during the late summer dog days. Then, come September, we come back from the beach, from the cabin in the woods, or wherever we’ve been, and the life of the working world starts up.
The air turns crisp; apples from the new harvest replace melons, berries, peaches and apricots in the produce aisle. On the first cool nights of September, we remember: there is such a thing as October, as light frost, as Halloween. The year turns a corner and the working world is back.
Fall has always struck me as the most American of seasons. This isn’t just about football and the world series. Fall is the Puritan time: we are less interested in gathering rosebuds than in storing up nuts; winter is coming and we need to prepare. Enough of the lazy consumerism of summer; it is almost with relief that Americans roll up their sleeves for the start of a new working year.
This particular rentrée does not, however, find the country in good spirits. According to the Real Clear Politics average, more than 61% of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. With unemployment at 9.6% and underemployment double that, almost one out of five Americans who want full-time jobs can’t get them. Trillions of dollars in home equity and stock market value has disappeared since 2007, while the federal debt has skyrocketed. China and India are growing blazingly fast; even Germany is growing faster than the United States these days.
Worse, our institutions — political, governmental, financial, educational, religious, journalistic, economic — look increasingly dysfunctional. The housing market, one of the greatest creators of household wealth and employment since the Depression, looks set for another sharp drop. In my own corner of the woods, liberal professors are writing books about the end of tenure; talk about the dangerous higher education bubble is moving into the mainstream. The right and the left are both producing books about the total breakdown of our political system and its hijacking by a destructive and vicious elite.
It is not a happy time.
I don’t want to minimize the challenges that face us, and especially the suffering of those among us who’ve lost jobs and seen the value of their homes and their savings erode. Indeed, in the months to come I will be posting about the challenges ahead of us and the costs of failure. If anything, we are still underestimating the risks, and the upheavals ahead are in many cases even bigger and scarier than is yet generally understood. Living up to the challenges of our time is going to take everything we have — and then some.
But even from that perspective, the current mood of pessimism and hand-wringing seems overdone.
In the first place, what were people expecting? There’s an old hymn whose words are worth recalling:
Shall I be carried to the skies
On flow’ry beds of ease,
While others fight to win the prize
And sail through bloody seas?
Life in the United States of America is not and never has been easy. During the Cold War, Americans (and everyone else) lived in fear of nuclear war. As a ten-year-old I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, when frightened teachers taught us to hide under our desks in the event of nuclear war and television and magazines showed us how the circles of destruction and patterns of fallout would spread death across the country in the aftermath of the bombs. People used to talk about whether it would be better die in the first strike or live through the horrific consequences, poking through the rubble of a destroyed civilization looking for ammunition and canned goods as feral mutants chased you through the ruins.
World War II killed a quarter of a million Americans in less than three years of combat. The Depression struck this country much harder than any economic catastrophe since. World War I and the resulting influenza scarred a whole generation. And in the old days, American workers and farmers toiled like the inmates of Dante’s Inferno, wresting what anyone of us today would consider a bare and meager living from an unforgiving world by the sweat of their brow and the skin of their teeth. Ethnic minorities (above all African-Americans), women, and lesbians and gays faced cruel and unremitting discrimination; the torture and lynching of blacks was commonplace in the early years of this century. The Civil War devastated huge swatches of the country and killed something like 600,000 people between April 1861 and May of 1865. Settling the west was hard; women gave birth in isolated homesteads without medical attention; settlers cut down trees, pulled the stumps from the earth, drained swamps and plowed virgin land without benefit of machines or in many cases any muscle power but their own.
No American generation has lived in a world free of hardship, free of upheaval, free of toil and care. What makes Americans today any different? In the lotus-eating days of the long economic booms in the 1990s and the first decade of the current century, many people came to believe that stock markets and house prices rise effortlessly and forever, that risk and change are words without meaning, and that America is a country founded on shopping and entertainment rather than faith, toil and blood.
Well, we are out of the bubble now, but we aren’t living in some kind of surrealistic hell. We are living in normal American times, and for centuries now Americans have been grappling with and overcoming challenges very much like those that we struggle with today. America has had to reinvent its economy, its political system, ts self-understanding, its culture and its relationship with the rest of the world not once, but many times over. Generation after generation of Americans has feared that the dream was coming to an end — and generation after generation of Americans found new ways to keep hope alive, reinvented the dream, and passed it on, strengthened and enhanced, for the future.
There is no guarantee that the United States will master our current challenges — but neither is there any guarantee that we will fail. The problems may be more complex, the pace of change faster, and the world more tumultuous than it used to be — but no generation of Americans has been as free of racism, as open to the talents of women as we are today. No generation has had the scientific and technical knowledge, the computer hardware and software, the means of education and communication that we have now.
And there’s something else.
The problems we face today are urgent and complex, but they are not the problems of failure. We are suffering the consequences of success.
We are not like Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, or dozens of other countries who are struggling with the consequences of decades and even centuries of failures to keep up with a changing world. America’s failures are the failures of a country on the cutting edge.
Countries like China and India are doing some amazing things, but they are playing catch-up. They are trying to get where we are, while the United States is moving forward into unexplored terrain. They are building industrial societies; we are seeing what comes next. They have a clear idea of the target in mind: a country where people are as rich as Americans. Our quest is different — harder, but perhaps also more rewarding.
We aren’t trying to recreate somebody else’s achievement or to replicate an already existing model. We are trying to do something new and different — we are making up a new kind of society as we go along. The challenges of America’s today are the challenges of everyone else’s tomorrow. We were the first “Fordist” society, where mass affluence was built on mass production in the factories of the twentieth century. We are now trying to be the first successful post-Fordist society, trying to work out a way to have a prosperous country that depends on something other than mass employment in manufacturing.
It is a great error to think that the collapse of manufacturing employment in the United States is simply the result of low wage competition from abroad. The real issue is technology: technological progress means that human labor can be employed more efficiently and therefore much more sparingly in the manufacturing process. This doesn’t just mean that IT enables the global production chains that make outsourcing possible. It means the restructuring of the entire manufacturing process. Car factories that used to be full of semiskilled industrial workers with high school diplomas or less are now run by robots. America is adding as much value in manufacturing as ever — but with many fewer hands employed. The low wage labor havens of today are going to face that problem in the future: China is not going to be able to build lasting prosperity on the basis of hundreds of millions of factory workers because China’s factories (and India’s, and Bangladesh’s) are ultimately going to be run by computers and robots as well.
We are hitting this wall now; others will hit it later.
The gathering storm in white collar employment has the same roots. The IT revolution is transforming the worlds of management and administration even more radically than technology is reshaping manufacturing. Government and corporate bureaucracies must adapt — often by shedding great quantities of labor — to new productivity and new possibilities. The hurricanes of change blowing through American state and federal governments and American corporate structures today will be blowing in Beijing and Delhi one of these days — but they are blowing here now and they are blowing hard.
Ditto the problems of democracy in an age of instant communication. As the internet flattens hierarchies, and an increasingly self-confident public rejects the tutelage and intermediation of elites and elite institutions, America faces a galloping crisis of institutional legitimacy. Other countries are going to face this too; I very much doubt that China’s one-party system and corrupt, entrenched elites will manage this crisis as well or as quickly as we do here.
The upheavals set off by these changes are dramatic and they are wrenching. Tens of millions of Americans have been educated and acculturated into worlds that are rapidly passing away. Fifty-year-old auto workers and middle managers are being cut adrift. It is not simply that their skills are obsolete. Their ideas about how to make a living developed in a labor market that is no longer extant. Their ideas about the social contract that binds workers, employers and the state were shaped by a mix of timeless aspirations and specific historical circumstances — and while the old expectations clearly no longer work, American society is very far from a consensus on what should replace them. And nobody really knows what skills that fifty-year-old ex-auto worker and ex-middle manager really needs. (My personal best guess for people facing this dilemma: get some skills related to medical technology or service delivery, preferably based in geriatrics: this market is growing; the pay is better than in many service fields; there are many different types of opportunities in it; you can gradually adapt to continuing technological change by upgrading and improving your core skills; Medicare funding and demographic change make this market a reasonable bet for the next decade plus; there are entrepreneurial opportunities as you learn the field; and age is less of a handicap when it just means you can relate more easily to the clients.)
So let’s make some lemonade, people: let’s get an early start on solving these problems. That’s been a source of America’s advantages for a long time now: we hit the walls first, we figure out how to climb them first, and then we are over the obstacle and sprinting ahead while others hit the walls on their own.
And the problems that are driving us so crazy, and driving so many of us to something like despair right now are, like so many problems, opportunities wearing a clever disguise. The fact that the world can produce greater and greater quantities of better and better manufactured products while condemning fewer and fewer human beings to lifetimes of drudgery and toil in repetitive factory work that is both dangerous and dull is a good thing, not a bad thing. The fact that fewer and fewer people will need to be timeserving bureaucrats to keep the wheels of government and corporate management going is also a good thing.
Or take the demographic crisis and the problems of Social Security and Medicare that have everyone (including me) wringing their hands. First, America’s enormous and time tested power of welcoming and assimilating talented immigrants means that we can face the demographic transition with far more confidence and optimism than countries in Europe — or Asian countries like Japan and even China. Second, that we are living longer, healthier lives and that new medical discoveries are making hundreds and thousands of new treatments available is a blessing, not a curse. Our core problem is that we need to adjust to our new health and longevity. That our most skilled and experienced workers now have another decade or more of productive life ahead when they hit 65 is fantastic news. The higher productivity of older people is going to help us reform both Medicare and Social Security — we can delay the age when benefits are paid, and there will be more people paying more into the system. Yes, we won’t all get to join the leisure class when we are 62 or even 65 — but since when has America’s goal been to quit working? Americans historically have been people who wanted to contribute, to make a difference. Living longer and healthier lives means that more of us will have more of a chance to do what we really want to do: to create and to share.
Yes, we have to adjust our expectations and our institutions to new realities. But so what? Which would you rather face: the problems of a stagnant or declining life expectancy or the problems that come from longer, healthier lifespans for you and for tens of millions of other people? Which would you rather do — retire at 62 and die at 68 or retire at 72 and die at 85 or later? Our piteous complaints basically revolve around the terrible truth that we have to pay for these miracles: we have to use some of the fruits of our longer lives and higher productivity to pay for the machines and the treatments that enable us to survive cancer and heart attacks, to recover from strokes and to treat the other debilitating problems of old age.
The truth of America’s problem today is this. We are not caught up in a Malthusian crisis of mass shortage and starvation. We are being crushed under the riches being pumped out by a cornucopia of wealth and abundance. We don’t need to get by with less; we need to figure out how to harness the floods of abundance now inundating our landscape. And as we achieve that, we are going to live better, grow faster and, I very much suspect, dramatically improve the quality of the environment.
The discontent and dissatisfaction now sweeping the country aren’t signs of our impending dissolution. They are signs that Americans want better lives, and are ready to innovate, to work, to adjust, to do whatever it takes to make progress. These are birth pangs and growth pains, not the pains of death and decay.
That, I think, is the meaning of la rentrée, American style. We are done with our long, slow summer of lotus-eating, and we are ready to get back to work.