Instead of never-ending progress, today’s kids face a world on the edge of collapse. What next?
The founder of macroeconomics predicted that capitalism would last for approximately 450 years. That’s the length of time between 1580, when Queen Elizabeth invested Spanish gold stolen by Francis Drake, and 2030, the year by which John Maynard Keynes assumed humanity would have solved the problem of our needs and moved on to higher concerns.
It’s true that today the system seems on the edge of transformation, but not in the way Keynes hoped. Gen Z’s fate was supposed to be to relax into a life of leisure and creativity. Instead it is bracing for stagnant wages and ecological crisis.
In a famous essay from the early 1930s called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” Keynes imagined the world 100 years in the future. He spotted phenomena like job automation (which he called “technological unemployment”) coming, but those changes, he believed, augured progress: progress toward a better society, progress toward collective liberation from work. He was worried that the transition to this world without toil might be psychologically difficult, and so he suggested that three-hour workdays could serve as a transitional program, allowing us to put off the profound question of what to do when there’s nothing left to do.
Well, we know the grandchildren in the title of Keynes’s essay: they’re the kids and younger adults of today. The prime-age workforce of 2030 was born between 1976 and 2005. And though the precise predictions he made about the rate of economic growth and accumulation were strikingly accurate, what they mean for this generation is very different from what he imagined.
Instead of progress toward a labor-free utopia, America has experienced disappearing jobs as a kind of economic climate change. Apocalyptic forecasts loom while poor and working-class communities take the brunt of the early impacts: wage stagnation, deregulated and unsafe workplaces, an epidemic of opioid addiction. The increasingly profligate wealth on the other end of society is no less disturbing.
What the hell happened? To figure out why Generation Z isn’t going to be Generation EZ, we have to ask some fundamental questions about economics, technology, and progress. After we assumed for a century that a better world would appear on top of our accumulated stuff, the assumptions appear unfounded. Things are getting worse.
As recently as the first web boom two decades ago, it was still possible to talk about technological development and economic expansion as being good for everybody. Take Webvan, the early (and subsequently much derided) grocery delivery startup. The company planned to combine the efficiencies of the internet and other advances in information and logistics to provide better-quality products at lower prices, delivered directly to consumers by higher-paid and better-trained workers. It’s a univocal, Keynesian vision of development: not only do all involved benefit individually as consumers, employees, or capitalists, but society itself steps together up the mountain toward the elimination of necessity and a higher plane of being.
When Webvan went belly-up, analysts assumed it meant the core idea was hopelessly wrong: it just doesn’t make sense to use human capacity to bring individual people their supermarket orders. Harvard Business School professor John Deighton, when asked about the future of the industry in 2001, said, “Home-delivered groceries? Never.” Yet less than 20 years later I can have one of the world’s few trillion-dollar companies (Amazon) deliver my order via its grocery brand (Whole Foods) in an hour. And if that’s not fast enough, there are various platform services (Instacart, Postmates, and others) through which I can hire someone to go pick my order up and bring it to me immediately. Buzzing clouds of freelance servants, always in motion.
For consumers, these services have made life more convenient. For owners, stock prices and corporate profits have been cruising higher and higher for decades. But as workers, we have suffered. Gone is the Webvan vision of highly trained, highly paid, upwardly mobile, stock-holding delivery drivers. Amazon’s treatment of its workers at all levels is so intensely exploitative that former employees have created their own form of writing: the “report-back,” an essay that exposes the particular, common hardships of working at the firm. It’s one part worker’s inquiry, one part trauma diary.
Here’s how one warehouse employee described the workflow:
“The AI is your boss, your boss’s boss, and your boss’s boss’s boss: it sets the target productivity rates, the shift quotas, and the division of labor on the floor … Ultimately what this means to you is that you’ll rarely work with the same people twice, you’ll be isolated, put on random tasks from shift to shift, slog for stowing or sorting or picking or packing rates well exceeding your average — because your supervisor told you so, and the program told him before that.”
Rather than relieving workers from toil, improvements in technology grind out their efficiencies by molding laborers into unreasonable shapes. Across departments, Amazon workers report being forced by the circumstances of their jobs to urinate in bottles and trash cans. Using layers of subcontracting agreements, the largest firms insulate themselves from responsibility to and for their lowest-wage workers. Recent investigations into Amazon’s last-mile shipping reveal exhausted drivers whose required carelessness has, predictably, been known to kill people. The company remains, as far as the business community is concerned, exemplary.
Everywhere, the idea of liberation from work seems like a dream. Workers making parts for iPhones have been exposed to toxic chemicals; Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn is regularly under the microscope for poor labor conditions. Instacart delivery workers went on strike to complain about changes that led to fewer tips; two days later the company cut their bonuses (Instacart says the two events are unrelated). Gig workers on the audio platform Rev.com recently discovered an overnight pay cut that meant Rev now takes 70 cents of every dollar a customer spends on getting audio transcribed, and they get a mere 30.
Young Americans are reaching prime working age in the Amazon economy, not the Webvan one. According to the Economic Policy Institute, while worker productivity increased 69.6% between 1979 and 2019, hourly pay has risen a measly 11.6%. “The income, wages, and wealth generated over the last four decades have failed to ‘trickle down’ to the vast majority largely because policy choices made on behalf of those with the most income, wealth, and power have exacerbated inequality,” the EPI says. The difference between productivity and pay is an increase in exploitation: workers doing more and getting less. That was not the plan.
Keynes and his policy vision fell out of fashion when the laissez-faire fundamentalism championed by Milton Friedman carried Reagan and Thatcher into global power. The old view of the future yielded to an era of deregulation and privatization. This was the “End of History,” with the free market as the proper — perhaps even inevitable — vehicle for human nature.
Here all pursue their individual interests, and together that adds up to the best of all possible worlds — at least as long as the government stays out of the way. We were taught as fact, for example, that rent — control policies counterintuitively increase rents, that minimum-wage laws counterintuitively hurt wages, that wealth from tax cuts trickles down to workers. (Attitudes on rent control are more nuanced today, while minimum-wage increases have raised incomes at the lowest end. The trickle — down theory has fared worst of all; the rich pocket, rather than reinvest, their tax cuts.) Most people bought the libertarian hype, and when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, many were surprised to find out markets weren’t actually self — regulating the way they had been told.
The subsequent bailouts, however, made it difficult to argue that governments could only ever get in the way of the economy’s proper functioning. And so economists dusted off Keynes. Countries that enthusiastically followed his advice and used public funds to stimulate demand came out of the recession much better off than those that hesitated. China’s decision in 2008 to inject stimulus spending worth more than 12% of GDP looks smart in retrospect. In America, Democrats and Republicans alike run for office on the promise of trillion — dollar spending proposals, not the bipartisan calls for a balanced budget and a shrinking government that we used to hear. The pendulum swung, and Keynes came back.