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What Does Innovation Mean for the American Workforce?

On one hand, innovation makes everyone’s lives better, creating new jobs and putting new products on the market. In many ways, our overall quality of life has improved from the way it was even ten years ago. Improvements in medicine, transportation, and communication have made the impossible possible.

But will such change harm or help workers? Will it create or destroy jobs as more and more machines do the work that people once did? As graduating college seniors start searching for full-time employment, is a rapidly-changing workplace holding young people back from even the most basic success?

According to Tyler Cowen’s most recent book, “Average is Over,” the job market is changing, and that will likely involve some difficult shifts in how future generations approach their work.

Cowen notes that some individuals—the ones driven to understand and take advantage of technology in the workplace, the ones who have the most specialized and advanced degrees, and the ones who can act as conscientious team players—will benefit from this shift. These individuals drive the changing frontier of the workforce.

But there will be many others who aren’t as lucky. As the economy has rebounded after the 2008 financial crisis:

[…] the American economy is learning that…a lot of workers had been overemployed relative to their skills…as the economy recovers from the recession, the clearer it becomes that a significant structural change has been underway for a longer period of time and that these structural changes are being baked into the look of recovery.

What do these structural changes look like? Cowen describes a rise in lower-paying, manual jobs. More people will become independent contractors and entrepreneurs. Finally, the job market will see a rise in self-employment and a growth of service jobs, from food service to marketing to healthcare.

[pq]Innovation will make our lives better in the long-term, but in the short-term, we might feel some growing pains.[/pq]

There is no doubt that the marketplace is changing fast, partly because of rapid innovation that is making old jobs obsolete. That change isn’t great news to a lot of struggling young people today. Does this mean that innovation is bad?

To answer this question, it might be helpful to look back at the Industrial Revolution. While it was a difficult time for many people in the short-term, its long-term consequences were to raise everyone’s standard of living—both from a consumer’s perspective and from a worker’s perspective. Did you get to choose what type of job you wanted to have after college? That’s a fairly modern luxury that most pre-Industrial Revolution workers did not have.

Part of the reason we can choose what we want to do for a living is: 1) More wealth for each individual to have a small safety net as we spend time and money deciding what we want to do with our lives; and 2) The wide range of jobs that the industrial revolution created.

So as the workforce changes, what are the implications for graduating seniors?

Individuals—especially young people entering the workforce—may have to change their expectations concerning work.

Cowen observes that unemployed “workers are not willing to take jobs for much less than their previous salaries…however unrealistically, most of these individuals are holding out for a better offer than what the American economy is serving up.” Everyone will have to listen to the market signals. Some will indeed get prestigious, high-paying white collar jobs. Others will have to support themselves by creating value through innovation, entrepreneurship, and service jobs—at least at first.

Second, if the workplace is indeed changing in the way that Cowen describes, it may be helpful to soften the blow by pursuing economic policies that contribute to human flourishing by encouraging job growth.

For example, minimum wage raises and other regulations have made it increasingly complicated and expensive for businesses to hire new employees. Cowen argues that “these may be good or bad things for society as a whole, but without question, we are moving further from a world where it is quick and easy to hire workers. That makes it harder to hire workers at all.”

Third, individuals, the church, and society must be adamant that all work is important, regardless of the pay or the prestige.

Whether you are at the forefront of scientific innovation, working in the food industry, or starting a business, you can use your gifts and expertise to support yourself by serving God and other people.

Economic growth, change, and innovation will make our lives better off in the long-term. But in the short-term, we might feel some growing pains. Keeping the situation in perspective, keeping an eye on the market, and being willing to adapt are the best ways to harness these sometimes terrifying changes to your advantage.