Globalization, tech eating away at US middle class

The New York TimesDecember 10, 2013 

The latest results in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compare how well 15-year-olds in 65 cities and countries can apply math, science and reading skills to solve real-world problems were released last week, and it wasn’t pretty for the home team.

Andreas Schleicher, who manages PISA, told the Department of Education: “Three years ago, I came here with a special report benchmarking the U.S. against some of the best performing and rapidly improving education systems. Most of them have pulled further ahead, whether it is Brazil that advanced from the bottom, Germany and Poland that moved from adequate to good, or Shanghai and Singapore that moved from good to great. The math results of top-performer Shanghai are now 2 1/2 school years ahead even of those in Massachusetts — itself a leader within the U.S.”

Not good. We’re now in an era in which globalization and the information technology revolution have merged to drastically shrink what was the basis of our middle class for so many years: the “high-wage, middle-skilled” job. In a less integrated and less automated world of walls, where unions held more sway, many Americans could live an average middle-class lifestyle with average skills. In today’s hyperconnected world without walls — when more Indians, Chinese, computers, robots and software can perform more average blue-collar and white-collar jobs — the only high-wage jobs are increasingly high-skill jobs.

“Over the last decade, job growth in the industrialized world has almost exclusively been at the top end of the PISA skill distribution,” explained Schleicher, “while routine cognitive skills, the kinds of things that are easy to teach but also easy to digitize and outsource, have seen the steepest decline in demand.”

President Barack Obama noted last week that this was one reason that the top 10 percent in America now takes home half of our national income, up from one-third in 1979. One response is to raise the minimum wage and provide national health care. I hope both work, but neither will solve the problem. “Since the link between skills, jobs and growth is becoming ever tighter, it will be harder and harder for governments to address inequalities through redistribution,” argues Schleicher.

To his credit, Obama has also been calling for more investment in preschool, tech-ed and affordable colleges, but Republicans will only talk about tax cuts. Tax cuts alone won’t cut it either. Our kids face three big adjustments. First, to be in the middle class, they will need to be constantly improving their skills over their lifetime. Second, to do that, they will need a lot more self-motivation. The “digital divide” will soon disappear. Fairly soon, virtually everyone will have a screen and an Internet connection. In that world, argues futurist Marina Gorbis, the big divide will be “the motivational divide” — who has the self-motivation, grit and persistence to take advantage of all the free or cheap online tools to create, collaborate and learn. And third, countries that thrive the most will be the HIEs — the high imagination-enabling countries — that attract and enable talent to be constantly spinning off new ideas and startups, the source of most new good jobs.

So now let’s look at the latest PISA. It found that the most successful students are those who feel real “ownership” of their education. In all the best performing school systems, said Schleicher, “students feel they personally can make a difference in their own outcomes and that education will make a difference for their future.” The PISA research, said Schleicher, also shows that “students whose parents have high expectations for them tend to have more perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation to learn.”

The highest performing PISA schools, he added, all have “ownership” cultures — a high degree of professional autonomy for teachers in the classrooms, where teachers get to participate in shaping standards and curriculum and have ample time for continuous professional development. So teaching is not treated as an industry where teachers just spew out and implement the ideas of others, but rather is “a profession where teachers have ownership of their practice and standards, and hold each other accountable,” said Schleicher.

We’re going through a huge technological transformation in the middle of a recession. It requires a systemic response. Democrats who protect teachers’ unions that block reforms to give teachers more ownership and accountability, and who refuse to address long-term entitlement spending that threatens to deprive us of funds to invest in the young, are harming our future. Republicans who block investments in things like early education and immigration reform — today we educate the world’s top talent in our colleges and then send them back to their home countries — are harming our future.

Conservatives need to think differently about the near-term safety nets we need to ease some people through this period, and liberals need to think more seriously about how we incentivize and unleash risk-takers to start new companies that create growth, wealth and good jobs. To have more employees, we need more employers. Just redividing a slow-growing pie will not sustain the American dream.

Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times columnist.

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