16 July 2018

Gales of Creative Destruction and the Stress of Progress

Since Oct-2010, the US economy has destroyed 475.6 million jobs (layoffs, retirements, firings, quits) and created 494.2 million jobs for net of 18.5 million jobs.

As of June, the labor force was 162.1 million.

So during the 8-year recovery the American economy has created 3X more jobs than there are people in the workforce and destroyed 3X more jobs than there are people in the workforce

244,000 jobs were created in May. More precisely, 5.8 million jobs were created and 5.5 million jobs were destroyed for a net of 244,000. It is not true that everyone kept his or her job except for 244,000 people who were newly hired. Every month people are laid off, fired, quit or retire; in May, 5.5 million people had such experiences. That's a lot of elation (those who retire), relief (those who quit), frustration and panic (those laid off and fired). We talk a lot about taxes but an economy this dynamic is emotionally taxing.

One of the challenges of the modern economy seems to be that given progress comes in the form of gales of creative destruction we have a high level of stress. Personally I think that just reinforces the necessity of things like universal healthcare, investments in job retraining and generous unemployment, etc. But regardless of the solution you'd advocate, you have to realize that anyone whose idea of the good life is a stable, predictable career is going to feel a continual level of stress and unease by progress.

Two things can be simultaneously true: we are creating better jobs and a lot of people end up with worse jobs. There are probably as many people laid off from manufacturing jobs paying $45,000 a year now working at Wal-Mart for $25,000 as there are people with new programming jobs making $75,000. (And of course that very dynamic is part of why median wages move upwards so slowly and why income inequality is increasing.)

This economy is wonderfully creative but it is increasingly disruptive. Entrepreneurship and social invention creates the new and obsoletes the old just as innovation does with products. We used to have marriage between one man and one woman and now we have same-sex marriage and polyamory. We used to have jobs with pensions and 40 hour workweeks and now we have 401(k)s and a gig-economy that offers us Uber-like jobs with both more freedom and uncertainty. We used to have an American economy and now we have NAFTA. If you find comfort in continuity you will actually find progress threatening because so often it forces us to act or be different. 

Innovation changes products while entrepreneurship and social invention changes people. That's unsettling.

It seems to me like the divide that doesn't get talked to enough is the divide between those who embrace progress and all its novelty and those who embrace tradition and all its familiarity. To the latter group, progress can actually feel like a threat.

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