Off Point: Correction and Clarification

As I blogged here yesterday, Erik and I were on WBUR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook yesterday. As I listened to the audio, I heard myself say something really dumb: that since the unemployment rate was less than 10%, this meant that over 9o% of working-age Americans had jobs.

Of course, this is not the case at all. The main unemployment rate – the U1 – is 9.1%. But the broader U6 unemployment rate stood at 16.5% in September 2011. As Portal Seven explains

The U6 unemployment rate counts not only people without work seeking full-time employment (the more familiar U-3 rate), but also counts “marginally attached workers and those working part-time for economic reasons.” Note that some of these part-time workers counted as employed by U-3 could be working as little as an hour a week. And the “marginally attached workers” include those who have gotten discouraged and stopped looking, but still want to work. The age considered for this calculation is 16 years and over

So fewer than 85% of working age Americans who want jobs have them. My bad for stating otherwise.

I also want to make a clarification. I said to Tom that, largely because of technological progress, the average American worker today has a standard of living that in many ways is superior to that of the Rockefellers. I still believe that’s true, but I brought it up not to tell people to quit whining, but only to highlight the great gifts of technology.

And I learned today that according to new census data, 6.7% of Americans – 1 in 15 – now live in extreme poverty, which is defined as 50% or less of the official poverty level. To make this concrete, extreme poverty is annual income of $5,570 or less for an individual, or $11,157 for a family of four. The more than 20 million Americans in this category are not living better than the Rockefellers. They’re in a dire place, and I never want to suggest otherwise.

Race Against… On Point

Erik and I were on Tom Ashbrook’s NPR show On Point today to talk about Race Against the Machine. The Web page devoted to the show is here, and the audio file of the show is here.

Tom did a great job guiding the conversation, and bringing us back to the big issue: where are all the jobs going to come from?

In the book, our short term answer answer to that question is, in a word, entrepreneurship. My longer term answer is I don’t know. As computers encroach on more and more human skills over time, I’m not sure what we’re going to need human workers for, or how many will be required.

And I don’t think the happy history of technology creating more jobs than it destroys is a great guide any more. Because all previous technologies combined have encroached only on a small set of human skills —  a small subset of the things an employer might hire a person to do.

The digital machines of today and (especially) tomorrow are encroaching on many more of these skills, including pattern matching and complex communication. So what my colleague and dissertation chair David Upton has called the ‘economic refuge’ available for human workers is shrinking now, and I get the impression it’s shrinking fast.

Do you share that impression? And if so, what do we do about it?