In 1986, Laurence Summers coined the term “hysteresis”—what happens when something snaps in such a way that it can never be put back together—like a light bulb which has been shattered by being dropped on the floor. One can argue that the Great Recession has so shattered the U.S. employment model.
(*from the Greek “husteros”, which means “late”)
I thought that I fully appreciated the nation’s employment crisis. My thirty year career in the IT industry gave me a unique perspective on the types of skills that are required to drive and market innovation in next-generation industries, how new technologies continually change skills requirements, and the rapid growth in emerging country skills. I saw how these trends, particularly when combined with complementary trends—such as demographics, educational patterns and political pressures—were fundamentally transforming the types of skills that would be required for success in tomorrow’s technology-based, global knowledge economy.
Then came the Great Recession. As if the disconnect between the future needs of the U.S., and current directions wasn’t already troubling enough, the recession made things much worse. Although the nation’s skills gap continues to worsen, the country no longer has the “luxury” of focusing on the skills that would be required for tomorrow’s jobs or the requirements for developing a new-age, globally competitive economy. We must now focus on the requirements for getting people back to work today. And we must do so in an economy in which:
- Many traditional industry segments and jobs, such as in the automotive, financial services and retail sectors, will never return;
- Consumers will be forced to reduce spending due to a combination of unemployment, falling wages and shrunken portfolio and home values;
- All types of spending and investments will be severely retrained by the needs for families, financial institutions, corporations and governments to “de-leverage”; and
- Big chunks of two generations—Baby Boomers and Millennials—may be all but locked out of the market for meaningful jobs. (see my 8/3/09 blog, Is the Great Recession Creating Two Lost U.S. Generations?
This explosive combination of trends (technology, globalization, demographics, education and the impact that the Great Recession would have on long-term employment opportunities) that prompted me to focus my research and launch my blog on the challenges and requirements for developing sustainable, high-value careers in the 21st century.
But, as well as I thought I understood the new career challenges, a recent article made me realize that even I–who has continually emphasized the profound structural shifts facing the U.S. employment market–may have underestimated the real magnitude of these challenges. This article, written by Joshua Cooper Ramos, managing director of Kissinger Associates for Time Magazine, is “Jobless in America: Is Double-Digit Unemployment Here to Stay?”
The article examines, and generally validates an off-text remark made by Lawrence Summers (who was a Nobel Prize-winning employment theory economist before becoming director of Obama’s National Economic Council) at a July 2009 conference sponsored by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
As Summers discussed, the U.S. economy appears to have passed through an inflection point. Traditional economic models failed to anticipate the pace or magnitude of recent job losses and nobody really knows what will be required to get us back to acceptable levels of unemployment—or even if we will even will be able to get back to acceptable levels. The country has already lost nearly 7 million jobs—the total number of jobs that have been created in the entire decade since 1999—and many economists expect it to take at least five years before this number of jobs will be recovered. (And this does not even begin to account for the 100,000 new jobs that must be created each month to compensate for new job entrants or the 11 million additional people that are currently underemployed, either working fewer hours than they would like or are too discourages to even look for work.)
Summers, it seems, anticipated and coined a term for this type of structural dislocation back in 1986. He called it “hysteresis”—what happens when something snaps in such a way that it can never be put back together—like a light bulb which has been shattered by being dropped on the floor.
Traditional job creation measures cannot rally address these problems. Sure, the government can create temporary jobs—at least until political pressure and the ballooning budget deficit prevent it from funding these make-work jobs. New jobs, such as those in retail and hospitality may fund minimum lifestyles, but won’t create the types of skills required for tomorrow’s high-value jobs. Even growth segments, like nursing and education, will do little or nothing to ensure global competitiveness or generate the foreign exchange required to pay for the nation’s habits.
We already understand many of the types of jobs that will not return to the U.S. as the economy improves, but what type jobs that will take their place? Biotech, GreenTech, NanoTech? Perhaps, someday, but nobody knows for sure.
What should students and disaffected workers do in the interim? I hate to repeat myself, but I will stick with the recommendations I made in two recent blogs:
- My five-step plan for unemployed professionals – Time for a New Job Search Strategy? and
- My curricula recommendations for college students – Leveraging University Education into Careers for the New Economy