Headline speakers at big conferences nearly always begin with some big, bold, attention-grabbing assertion.
“Maine’s economic past,” I was told recently at a conference on the promise of broadband technology, “was transforming natural resources into useful things and sending them out into the world on ships, rail cars and trucks. Maine’s economic future,” the speaker continued, “will be transforming digital bits and bytes into useful information and sending it into the world over the Internet.”
Based on the activities of his audience – three of five in my row were busily reading and sending texts and emails as he spoke, and two of four at the table in front of me were typing feverishly on their tablets – that future had already arrived.
Such an overarching, 30,000-feet-in-the-air overview of our history is dramatic and helps set the context for better understanding our current policy problems, but it doesn’t make the solution immediately obvious. We still need to replace (or refill) our abandoned textile, shoe and lumber mills with whatever name we give to “digital transformation space.” And we still need to build poles, wires and transmission towers to do what our roads, rail lines and ports are no longer doing, at least not to the extent required to keep us all employed.
“OK, OK, I get it – we’re entering a digital age,” we nod agreeably. “Now tell me how I turn that knowledge into jobs for my town.”
To answer that question, we need to understand another big, dramatic, seen-from-30,000-feet idea. The digital age, the information economy, the Internet of everything, require a wholesale redefinition of the very idea of “a job.”
Transforming trees into paper is a physical process involving wood, water and chemistry; it involves machines operated by people: capital and labor. This traditional industrial process and classical economic dichotomy is probably best visualized in the opening sequence of the classic film “On the Waterfront.” The corrupt union boss Lee J. Cobb sends one of his thugs out to the dock to hand out work medallions to his favorites among the waiting longshoremen. As the hungry workers crowd around him more threateningly, the goon looses his cool, flings the tokens onto the street and retreats behind the safety of an entry gate. The desperate workers fight like dogs on the street for the precious tokens that will allow them to earn a day’s wage.
What could be clearer? A job is something any one of us could do, but only some of us will be given the chance to do. There is labor and capital.
Transforming digital bits and bytes into useful information isn’t so easily categorized. The best depictions of the post-industrial, information economy is Facebook’s decision to pay $19 billion for a 50-person enterprise that is less than 10 years old and has never turned a profit. In the post-industrial, information economy – the economy of bionic prosthetics, Google Glass and individually designed medical treatment – the very distinction between labor and capital has blurred.
The factory, mill and loading dock can no longer be so easily locked up and made available to the lucky workers selected only when owners decide. Disney paid billions for Pixar knowing that the creative animators, designers, programmers and producers who make their magical (and ever so profitable) films walk out the door every night.
Facebook, Disney, Google, Netflix and others are paying billions not for buildings and equipment (physical capital) but for imagination, talent, creativity and teamwork, that is, for human capital, not for known products workers will produce today, but for only vaguely imagined products they will invent tomorrow and produce the day – or week or year – after tomorrow.
The main reason that our current recovery is so sluggish is not the so-called skills gap, but the human capital risk gap. Employers aren’t looking for a worker to do a job today and the same job tomorrow. They’re looking for people capable of learning to do jobs they can’t even define today, but know they’ll need tomorrow. They’re looking for highly motivated learning machines. They don’t want to hire workers; they want to invest in human capital – even if they can’t quite say it that way.
The implications of this perspective for our definition of this much-desired thing called “a job” are profound … and something to be examined in future columns.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at: [email protected]