Today I ran across yet another article telling us that wages for American workers are going nowhere (Quartz, hat tip Tim Iacono).
As you age and progress in your career, your earnings normally increase. And for many Americans that’s still the case. Using the US Census Bureau’s March Current Population Survey, I estimated median earnings of 31 to 36 year olds in 2000, a group made up entirely of those considered Generation X. I aged them one year, each year, until 2015 (ending with them between 46 and 51). And, like generations before them, the typical Gen Xer’s earnings increased over that time. The figure below plots Gen X earnings and the median earnings of the whole population.
... But here’s a really important point about the Gen X data: nearly all the gains occurred before 2009, and the increases you’ve seen over the last couple years have only gotten us back to our pre-recession levels. Hardly anyone has gotten a significant raise since the recession. Gen Xers are worth singling out because they’re in their peak earning years. They’ve now missed out on what should be the biggest raises of their careers.
Lately, when I see this kind of stuff—Gen-X workers getting screwed—I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's famous question, which is posed in the title of this post. The Nation's ‘I Was There': On Kurt Vonnegut explains the question (May 16, 2012).
... The volumes begin with Player Piano (1952), a novel that owes its existence, as Charles J. Shields explains in And So It Goes, to Vonnegut’s time in the public relations department at General Electric. (Shields’s biography is badly written and none too penetrating in its literary insights, but it seems to have been thoroughly researched and is, in any case, the only one we have so far.) After a few increasingly sour years puffing nuclear power and home appliances—“Progress Is Our Most Important Product,” went the company slogan—Vonnegut decided to imagine what the future General Electric was trying to create would actually look like.
We are living in Vonnegut's future.
As its title suggests, Player Piano describes a society in which the vast majority of people have been rendered obsolete by machines. Everything is automated, and a privileged caste of engineers, selected through a ruthless system of aptitude testing, runs the show.
The average person, benevolently provided for by his betters, lacks nothing other than purpose, dignity, self-respect and meaningful labor.
We now know that no one is benevolently provided for in Vonnegut's future. There is of course a disgraceful government-run "safety net" in a country in which nearly half of the children live in poverty. Nearer the end of his life than the beginning, Vonnegut understood that creating a decent society was an impossible.
On the other hand, among the fortunate Americans who are working and scraping by, most lack purpose, dignity, self-respect and meaningful labor. Many of those people are voting for radical change in 2016, sixty-four years after Vonnegut wrote Player Piano. Not that voting matters, as they are about to find out.
The novel’s prescience is chilling.
Yes, it is.
Six years before the left-wing English sociologist Michael Young published The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire that coined that now-ubiquitous final word, Vonnegut was already there. “He just finished his National General Classification Tests,” says a character [in Player Piano] about his son. “He didn’t do nearly well enough for college. There were only twenty-seven openings, and six hundred kids trying for them.”
With its idled masses made superfluous by technologically driven gains in productivity, the novel is, if anything, more relevant than ever now.
It poses Vonnegut’s essential question:
What are people for?
I will be examining this question at some length in the near future.
Related topics include capitalism, technophilia, automation, elites, GDP growth, productivity and, of course, human nature.