My Generation — Baby Boom Economics, Demographics, and Technological Stagnation

“You promised me Mars colonies, instead I got Facebook.” — MIT Technology Review cover over photo of Buzz Aldrin

“As a boy I was promised flying cars, instead I got 140 characters.”  — attributed to Marc Maron and others

I have been in a series of meetings over the last couple of weeks with colleagues describing the state of the technology industry and the markets it serves.  What seems to be a generally held view is that both the industry and the markets for software and technology are experiencing a hardening of the arteries and a resistance to change not seen since the first waves of digitization in the 1980s.

It is not as if this observation has not been noted by others.  Tyler Cowen at George Mason University noted the trend of technological stagnation in the eBook The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will(Eventually) Feel BetterCowen’s thesis is not only to point out that innovation has slowed since the late 19th century, but that it has slowed a lot, where we have been slow to exploit “low-hanging fruit.”  I have to say that I am not entirely convinced by some of the data, which is anything but reliable in demonstrating causation in the long term trends.  Still, his observations of technological stagnation seem to be on the mark.  His concern, of course, is also directed to technology’s affect on employment, pointing out that, while making some individuals very rich, the effect of recent technological innovation doesn’t result in much employment

Cowen published his work in 2011, when the country was still in the early grip of the slow recovery from the Great Recession, and many seized on Cowen’s thesis as an opportunity for excuse-mongering and looking for deeper causes than the most obvious ones: government shutdowns, wage freezes, reductions in government R&D that is essential to private sector risk handling, and an austerian fiscal policy (with sequestration) in the face of weak demand created by the loss of $8 trillion in housing wealth that translated into a consumption gap of $1.2 trillion in 2014 dollars

Among the excuses that were manufactured is the meme that is still making the rounds about jobs mismatch due to a skills gap.  But, as economist Dean Baker has pointed out again and again, basic economics dictates that the scarcity of a skill manifests itself in higher wages and salaries–a reality not supported by the data for any major job categories.  Unemployment stood at 4.4 percent in May 2007 prior to the Great Recession.  The previous low between recession and expansion was the 3.9 percent rate in December 2000, yet we are to believe that suddenly in the 4 years since the start of one of the largest bubble crashes and resulting economic and financial crisis, that people no longer have the skills need to be employed (or suddenly are more lazy or shiftless).  The data do not cohere.

In my own industry and specialty there are niches for skills that are hard to come by and these people are paid handsomely, but the pressure among government contracting officers across the board has been to drive salaries down–a general trend seen across the country and pushed by a small economic elite and therein, I think lies the answer more than some long-term trend tying patents to “innovation.”  The effect of this downward push is to deny the federal government–the people’s government–from being able to access the high skills personnel needed to make it both more effective and responsive.  Combined with austerity policies there is a race to the bottom in terms of both skills and compensation.

What we are viewing, I think, that is behind our current technological stagnation is a reaction to the hits in housing wealth, in real wealth and savings, in employment, and in the downward pressure on compensation.  Absent active government fiscal policy as the backstop of last resort, there are no other places to make up for $1.2 trillion in lost consumption.  Combine this with the excesses of the patent and IP systems that create monopolies and stifle competition, particularly under the Copyright Term Extension Act and the recent Leahy-Smith America Invents Act.  Both of these acts have combined to undermine the position of small inventors and companies, encouraging the need for large budgets to anticipate patent and IP infringement litigation, and raising the barriers to entry for new technological improvements.

No doubt exacerbating this condition is the Baby Boom.  Since university economists don’t seem to mind horning in on my specialty (as noted in a recent post commenting on the unreliability of data mining by econometrics),  I don’t mind commenting on theirs–and what has always surprised me is how Baby Boom Economics never seems to play a role in understanding trends, nor as predictors of future developments in macroeconomic modeling.  Wages and salaries, even given Cowen’s low-hanging fruit, have not kept pace with productivity gains (which probably explains a lot of wealth concentration) since the late 1970s–a time that coincides with the Baby Boomers entering the workforce in droves.  A large part of this condition has been a direct consequence of government policies–through so-called ‘free trade” agreements–that have exposed U.S. workers in industrial and mid-level jobs to international competition from low-paying economies.

The Baby Boom, given an underperforming economy, saw not only their wages and salaries lag, but also saw their wealth and savings disappear with the Great Recession, when corporate mergers and acquisitions weren’t stealing their negotiated defined benefit plans, which they received in lieu of increases in compensation.  This has created a large contingent of surplus labor.  The size of the long-term unemployed, though falling, is still large compared to historical averages, is indicative of this condition.

With attempts to privatize Social Security and Medicare, workers now find themselves squeezed and under a great deal of economic anxiety.  On the ground I see this anxiety even at the senior executive level.  The workforce is increasingly getting older as people hang on for a few more years, perpetuating older ways of doing things. Even when there is a changeover, oftentimes the substitute manager did not receive the amount of mentoring and professional development expected in more functional times.  In both cases people are risk-averse, feeling that there is less room for error than there was in the past.

This does not an innovative economic environment make.

People who I had known as risk takers in their earlier years now favor the status quo and a quiet glide path to a secure post-employment life.  Politics and voting behavior also follows this culture of lowered expectations, which further perpetuates the race to the bottom.  In high tech this condition favors the perpetuation of older technologies, at least until economics dictates a change.

But it is in this last observation that there is hope for an answer, which does confirm that this is but a temporary condition.  For under the radar there are economies upon economies in computing power and the ability to handle larger amounts of data with exponential improvements in handling complexity.  Collaboration of small inventors and companies in developing synergy between compatible technologies can overcome the tyranny of the large monopolies, though the costs and risks are high.

As the established technologies continue to support the status quo–and postpone needed overhauls of code mostly written 10 to 20 years ago (which is equivalent to 20 to 40 software generations) their task, despite the immense amount of talent and money, is comparable to a Great Leap Forward–and those of you who are historically literate know how those efforts turned out.  Some will survive but there will be monumental–and surprising–falls from grace.

Thus the technology industry in many of its more sedentary niches are due for a great deal of disruption.  The key for small entrepreneurial companies and thought leaders is to be there before the tipping point.  But keep working the politics too.

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