If Paul Taylor is sure of one thing, it’s that he’s unsure how the future of the American workscape will play out. He knows the workplace of 2040, affected by demographic and technological changes happening right now, will be a lot different than the one of 2014; and he knows that American society overall will be a lot different too. But as for what will happen when we get there? Taylor simply doesn’t know. We’re not far enough along in the revolution to see where the pieces land.
That’s a good thing, actually, because Taylor, a veteran newspaper journalist, author, and current Pew Research Center senior fellow, doesn’t believe in dark, Malthus-inspired forebodings about a future run by machines any more than he believes that technology and youth will magically save the day. “I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of guy,” he says. For every change in technology that takes away another job, there’s the chance that technology could create a new job; for every shift in demographics (white will not be the majority by mid-century), new cultural and economic possibilities open up.
But if Taylor is sure of another thing, it’s that unless larger issues like Medicare and Social Security are fixed soon, young people will get the short end of the stick when it comes to paying for the future. All this social and technological change going on around us gives us a chance to reexamine how we can shape work and retirement as we go. As long as we stop trying to look at the future as if getting there will be a straight line.
Taylor will speak on how these and other changes may affect the America of tomorrow at “The Future of Work” seminar on Wednesday, November 12, at 4 p.m. at the Heldrich Center at Rutgers in New Brunswick. He will join Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center. Cost $75. Visit www.heldrich.rutgers.edu/newsroom/einsteins-alley-presents-future-work.
Taylor, a Brooklyn native, moved to Washington, D.C., around age 10, when his father, a State Department worker was assigned there. As a boy, Taylor had already lived in Japan and Vietnam, thanks to his father’s job. But after landing in Washington, his father went to work for the U.S.-Japan Business Council.
Taylor got his bachelor’s in American studies from Yale in 1970 and became a reporter at publications such as the Winston-Salem Sentinel in North Carolina and the Philadelphia Inquirer. His last 14 years in newspapers were at the Washington Post, where he covered national politics and served as bureau chief in South Africa during the transformation from apartheid to democracy.
On two occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s Taylor was also the visiting Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University. He left the Post in 1996 to start the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, an organization promoting more fair and equal television time for political candidates. In 1998 he formed the Alliance for Better Campaigns, aiming to get more substantive information to more Americans during election cycles. In 2003 he helped form the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American think tank (or “fact tank” as Taylor likes to call it) based in Washington D.C., that provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends.
Much of what Taylor has learned about demographics and social trends found its way into his latest book, “The Next America,” which got so much notice that Taylor even landed on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Among the book’s chief assertions is that the America of tomorrow cannot be determined by the same measures they used to be.
Historical perspective. About 80 years ago, social programs like Social Security set out to keep older Americans from falling into poverty once their working days were over. Back then, according to Taylor, there were five people still working for every person who retired. This helped carry what Taylor calls the greatest social program the United States ever enacted.
The problem is not that Social Security is a bad idea, Taylor says, it’s that “the math of the 20th century simply doesn’t work anymore.” Today there are three workers for every retiree and we’re not far from that ratio being 2:1. And it’s been known for decades that Social Security is not sustainable as-is. By 2033, Taylor says, the program will only be able to pay out about three-quarters of promised benefits. And millennials will be the first generation of people to have to contend with the fact that they’ve paid into a system that will not give them much in return.
This happened because Social Security began as a pay-up-front kind of program and along the line turned into a pay-as-you-go program. And because of its inherent instability, based on 20th century numbers, Taylor says, some (such as presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) have advocated scrapping it entirely. “I don’t agree, “Taylor says. “Some people say Social Security doesn’t work, so let’s get rid of it. I say it doesn’t work, so let’s fix it.”
Part of the problem, of course, is politics. Like everything, Social Security and Medicare are left/right fighting words, and nothing gets done (in its first early years, there were a dozen alterations to Medicare; in more recent years, zero, because no one wants to touch the sacred cow, Taylor says.)
Another part of the problem is the change in the numbers. Americans have fewer children than they did 80 years ago, for one thing. For another, the huge mass of baby boomers (“10,000 a day go from being payers to being beneficiaries”) is taxing Social Security. And people are living a lot longer, and healthier, which also is making things tough on the system.
All this affects the workforce because people are staying in their jobs longer. Pew has conducted surveys to find out whether seniors are staying at work out of want or need. “They’re saying they want to keep working,” Taylor says. They’re saying, ‘There’s only so much golf I can play.’”
Whether the fact that people are staying at work longer is really keeping younger people from entering the workforce, Taylor isn’t sure, but he leans toward no. Along with the change in numbers, work itself has changed. Technology has eliminated many of what were once considered entry-level, middle-class jobs, he says. There are jobs at the top, in executive areas, and jobs at the bottom that can’t really be replaced by machines (yet), and which involve labor. But there are fewer jobs in the middle, jobs that offer a chance at advancing from the ground floor.
In other words, the notion of “work hard and climb the ladder” isn’t a real thing in America anymore. And, Taylor says, the young are the ones who will shoulder the realities this brings. “The message we’re giving young people is choose your parents wisely,” Taylor says. “I don’t know if that’s such a good message.”
So where does that leave millennials and those who follow? Well, it leaves them to navigate a world in which demographic changes make it hard to compete and in which technology is altering the way business and life work every day. In some cases, that’s bad, because many once-paying jobs are now extinct or greatly reduced thanks to technology. On the other hand, the fact that young people today are so comfortable with technology may lead to at least a near-future in which millennials can teach older workers how to operate in a digital world.
“And who knows?” Taylor says. “Technology could create jobs we can’t yet imagine.” It’s just a matter of wait and see. Just don’t be surprised if things go bump along the road to tomorrow.