An Era of Unprecedented Disruption

In May, I had the chance to interview Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. A historian and former president of Midland University in Nebraska, Sasse was elected to the Senate in 2014. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics from the impact of automation to the technological revolution in agricultural to education reform to the challenges of teaching young people a sense of resilience and self-reliance—which is the topic of his new book, The Vanishing American Adult.

Here are excerpts from our discussion of what he sees as the unprecedented technological disruption caused by automation.

Rob Tracinski: You did an op-ed recently in The Wall Street Journal, based on a speech that you gave, where you talk about the impact of automation and talk about how it is an unprecedented economic and technological transition that you think we’re not prepared for. So I want to start thinking through those parts separately. Could you explain why you think this is an unprecedented transition in the economy?

Ben Sasse: I think that there have only been about four kinds of economies at the macro level in human history. You have hunter-gatherers, you have the rise of agriculture, and then you had the rise of the big tool economy: industrialization, urbanization, mass immigration both across the seas and most fundamentally from the American countryside to cities, as you go from about 86 percent of the public working on the farm at the end of the Civil War to almost 60 percent of the public working in big cities by World War II. And then now this new thing, the digital economy, the mobile economy, the knowledge economy, the service economy—the post-industrial economy, fundamentally.

And the first two—there’s a huge thing that happened when nomads settled down and began to plant and harvest and stay in the same place and build permanent dwellings, religious sites of worship became permanent, not mobile tents. So there was a big change there. But one thing that didn’t change was the basic idea that as you went from being a child to being an adult, you just sort of became 10 or 12 or 14 and took on more and more responsibilities, that you weren’t really choosing a career. You weren’t choosing a vocation. You weren’t choosing a kind of work. You just did what grandpa did, and what his or her grandpa and grandparents did. For generations people just inherited the same labor as their parents.

Industrialization is the only real analog for this moment. So you’re right that I do use the word “unprecedented” at times because I think this is arguably, over the course of the next 50 or 75 or a hundred years, going to be a bigger disruption. But I think it’s very helpful to think by analogy to industrialization, with what happened then to what’s happening now.

But what’s more disruptive about our moment is when people went from the countryside to the city, and they took job, they left high school or some small subset of them left college, or they moved from the farm and they went to the city—they picked a career, but they still tended to have that work until death or retirement. What’s new in our age is the shrinking duration of the job not just at a particular firm but probably in an industry, happening inside the lifetime of one person. That’s new.

Rob Tracinski: Why do you think that we’re unprepared for that new kind of economy that we’re moving into?

Ben Sasse: Well, it would mean that 40- and 45- and 50- and 55-year-olds should expect that they’re regularly going to be disintermediated out of their kind of work, and they’re going to have to find a new kind of work. And we’ve never really done that in human history. We’ve never had a society of lifelong learners, where people lost a job in their middle age and had to be resilient enough and have the sort of grit and the perseverance and the social network and the lifelong learning opportunities and potential, that they would then go and find new work as a middle-aged person. By and large, if you’re 45 or 55 today, and you lose your job, you often don’t ever really get reemployed again. We’re going to have to have everybody able to get re-employed. That’s new.

There’s lots of opportunity. I’m no Luddite. I believe that the total economic output of this new era is going to be bigger than any output we’ve ever seen before economically. But it’s still going to be disruptive in ways that we’re not really grappling with yet.

Rob Tracinski: We linked at RealClearFuture to an article about how a lot of Millennials are going into lines of work where they can expect to be disrupted in 10 or 15 years by automation, by new technology. But those are the career paths they’re choosing, and the question is: do they really realize this is going to happen, and are they prepared for what’s going to happen when they have to have the flexibility to move somewhere else?

Ben Sasse: Right. I think that’s just such a basic challenge that people are going to have to grapple with, and we aren’t talking about it in a way that’s helping our teens and our twenty-somethings prepare for all this disruption that’s coming. I’ve read some studies a few years ago—I was a college president for five years before I was elected to the Senate—and I used to regularly look at some futurist economics and demography and sociology every spring headed toward graduation, to sort of think about the world that kids were going to enter, our graduates. And there was some data in about 2011-2012 that that the average 22- to 24-year-old walking across the stage at commencement at that time wasn’t just going to change jobs, they were going to change industries three times in their first decade post-college. Nobody’s ever done that before. And I’m not sure we’re–in fact, I’m fairly sure that we’re not doing the hard work of helping people realize the magnitude of what they’re going to have to be able to navigate.

I believe deeply in human resilience and human potential. But you have to learn the habit of grittiness as well, and we’re not talking about that enough.

Rob Tracinski: The reason I look at that disruption 100 to 150 years ago, people coming off the farm—a lot of my grandparents or great grandparents were part of that. I think you can underestimate how big a transition that was and how different life was. Part of the reason it looks more frightening for us today is because we don’t know where it’s going. We know we’re de-industrializing right now, not in terms of output but in terms of employment, fewer people being employed in the industrial economy. But we don’t know what we’re moving into.

Ben Sasse: I’m a consumer of a lot of your stuff, and I think you say it about as well as anybody out there, that if your language is historical, you know what the next destination is. And so we don’t talk about “de-agriculturalization,” we talk about “industrialization” because we know what was next. And you’re right, when we’re talking about post-industrial or de-industrialization, it’s because we don’t know what to name the next thing.

So I’m with you on being fairly optimistic about the total output of what comes next. I do think, though, that the disruption for individuals and for the generation or the next two generations is going to be substantial. And there it goes back to your opening question about analogies to this moment. It’s akin to the Progressive moment where Progressivism tried to remake all of society in light of this disruption of work that accompanies industrialization and urbanization. And so regardless of whether people are more or less pessimistic than you and I are—I think of myself as fairly mixed on this question, I think you’re leaning more optimistic—but you’re going to have people who are more optimistic than you or more pessimistic than me, and I think all of us would still benefit from recognizing how disrupted the politics were of the Progressive era, from the fact that work was so unsettled.

And it wasn’t just moving from one kind of work to another kind, agricultural to industrial, it’s also moving from one kind of social arrangement in a Tocquevillean village to the new city. And it turned out that a lot of the human capital that Tocquevillian America was about could be reproduced in urban ethnic neighborhoods. What’s not at all clear, and again to your point about not having language for where we head next, that the sort of suburban- to exurbanization of America is going to remake social networks as well. And we don’t have categories for how to think about that. And so one of the things that produces is a lot of alienation and anxiety, and I think fundamentally a simple word to talk about it is loneliness, because a lot of people don’t have a vision in their minds of what neighborliness might look like in an era where people become a lot more mobile in their work lives.

I think that a lot of the social anxieties people feel about this changing nature of work are about trying to figure out what human capital and social networks look like in this new era.

Rob Tracinski: When we talk about “futurism”—everybody’s going to need a little bit of futurism in their lives. There’s a lot of things we’re used to that are going to be disrupted, and we’re going to need to have the human capital, as you put it, to be able to address that and adjust to that.

Ben Sasse: Yeah. A lot of the future that you talk about it—it’s interesting to me that the two kinds of people who seem comfortable talking about this are technologists and people who are interested in sci-fi and have thought about the future—and historians, people who, this is my background, people who have seen disruption and thought about continuity and discontinuity in the past and not thought that you just automatically know all the answers. And it’s very closely related to the point you make about how the uncertainty of where we fit and where we sit leads to a lot of this anxiety.

But when you look at other historical moments like this, people are resilient. But the way that you become resilient is by forming habits that are intentionally chosen, not just passively drifted into.

Rob Tracinski: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. I know you had to squeeze this in after an extended vote in Congress, so I appreciate your taking the time and for sharing your thoughts with me on this.

Ben Sasse: Well, thanks for the invitation and for what you do at RealClearFuture. I’m a regular reader and benefit from it.

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