Inequality and education in the age of Trump


Jan 12, 2017

Fears are mounting that technology will automate and displace jobs on a scale never before seen. At the same time, despite its clear benefits, free trade does lead to the displacement of some individuals’ jobs.

As a recent Harvard Business Review piece titled “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” which was written to explain the rise of President-elect Trump, noted, “One key message is that trade deals are far more expensive than we’ve treated them, because sustained job development and training programs need to be counted as part of their costs.” The same is true for the continued development and spread of new technologies.

To tackle the specter of mass technological unemployment, we need to lower the cost for adults of getting more education and training. That may require not just financing adult learners’ educations, seeding innovative and more affordable learning models, and covering training when someone loses her job because of trade, but also paying for adults’ living expenses as they learn and retool.

If we don’t figure out how to tackle the cost of education and training, the numbers of people feeling displaced and disenfranchised will only grow.

There are numerous prescriptions and recommendations emerging to tackle technological unemployment.

Universal basic income is gaining steam. It has its allures, but I have three worries. First, I wonder if it would lead to rampant inflation, which would reduce the purchasing power of that income level such that it would not solve the problem. Second, it could lead to more individuals opting out of work, which could create broader social challenges in communities and reduce the nation’s competitiveness. And third, it feels like a blunt solution to a complicated set of problems that would likely create winners, losers, and unintended consequences.

A second antidote relies on an augmentation strategy. Enterprises and individuals should be approaching the great technological advances with an “augmentation strategy,” by starting with “what humans do today and figuring out how that work could be deepened rather than diminished by a greater use of machines,” according to Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby in their Harvard Business Review article “Beyond Automation: Strategies for remaining gainfully employed in an era of smart machines.”

This makes sense. It’s how humans have ultimately responded to all major technological advances—when we have responded constructively. Although whole job functions and industries disappear, we adapt by leveraging the technology to do more tasks that add more value.

But it is also incomplete. The pace of technological progress has picked up dramatically. To keep up, many adults will need to learn new knowledge and skills every few years. Learning is becoming a lifelong endeavor. Rather than a discreet phase of one’s life, education is more likely to be something to which people return continually to skill-up and keep pace.

That will require more educational options that are faster, less expensive, and flexible and result in good jobs.

Thinking of postsecondary education in a more traditional way—much as the proposals around free community college or debt-free public college would do—not only directly undercuts more innovative and affordable offerings that may emerge, but may also distract from another key lever in this equation.

It may be critical to provide money to pay for people’s living expenses as they enter these educational experiences. In other words, it won’t be enough to provide money to help learners afford tuition—although doing that in the form of education savings accounts, for example, as Gov. Jeb Bush had proposed in his campaign, is important, especially given ESAs’ flexibility to be used potentially on costs like child care while a student is taking a class.

The reason is that leaving a job that provides for one’s family to enroll in an educational program carries an opportunity cost. Even if someone can simultaneously work and learn in a formal educational program, those programs still carry an opportunity cost with them in an increase in failure rates, as learners struggle to balance their lives and dedicate themselves to the education. Learners entering these programs often will not be able to afford failure. Waiting to be laid off before enrolling also has an opportunity cost, in that it is much harder to get back into the workforce.

As a result, covering that opportunity cost—in the form of money to help learners pay for living expenses and to support their families—may be critical to cracking this nut and giving adults the opportunity to reskill and not experience the disenfranchisement that comes from displacement. The program could perhaps be modeled on welfare reform, in which someone who is unemployed collects unemployment payments so long as they show evidence of trying to get a job. The analog here would be that a learner would collect payment for living expenses so long as she showed evidence of making actual progress—not just enrollment in—an educational program focused toward getting a job.

Building in that cost—to individuals and society—and supporting the lives of the working class as they cycle through jobs and educational programs to reskill for the next may be critical to tackling the trends of displacement and disenfranchisement just beginning to roil our society.

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Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently serves as Chairman of the Clayton Christensen Institute and works as a senior strategist at Guild Education.