Here's a disconcerting statement to chew on:
"I don't think any of us know what the future of the American economy is."
That's Christina Romer, former chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisors, when speaking with NPR about the misguided allure of a manufacturing revitalization. In case you need clarification, the "us" refers to our country's economic and political leadership.
Politicians are quick to devote themselves to the generic cause of "jobs" in an election year, but few have touched on the bigger concern of the Millennial Generation: What does a 21st jobs economy look like in America? The current generation -- my generation -- of young adults in our teens and twenties are some of the most educated and creative people this earth has ever seen, yet we graduate into a world that can't use our brains, and so many of us end up serving fair trade coffee or stacking organic groceries.
In the 20th century the economic law of comparative advantage played to the United States' favor - we were the exporters to the world. We had the infrastructure for companies to produce goods and turn a profit on a scale that no other country could touch; once other nations saw what we had going on they joined the global economy and easily wooed the same companies oversees with their low price points (monetary, ethical and otherwise) for labor and raw materials. Now the United States is losing out to countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, who are all able to produce goods much cheaper than we are.
So of course manufacturing jobs have moved overseas, and yet our political leaders have spent the last four decades on a failed strategy of asking once-American-now-global companies to turn away from their financial interests in the name of a patriotism that does not exist in the commercial world.
At the same time, American youth are being told that they need a college education in order to compete for jobs in our country; and so they go. Many take out costly student loans for a degree and then enter into a world that not only has fewer manufacturing jobs, but now also fewer professional opportunities (many say we are now in the midst of a higher education bubble). Today the jobs that many college graduates end up taking often require no advanced skill or knowledge -- they could probably be done by someone with a high school diploma. While it is true that those who do have financial stability in the 21st century will have at least a four-year diploma, this alone will not guarantee security. Now kids are realizing the limits of a college degree and many are going back for master's degrees and doctorates, taking on larger debts and hoping that with more education comes better prospects. Unfortunately those prospects are all dependent upon the United States having a plan for creating and retaining enough high-skilled jobs for current and future generations; it's pretty evident that we don't have one. Until we create otherwise, this is America's 21st century jobs economy.
There are a few realities that the United States and its leadership need to face then. First, factory jobs aren't going to be the basis of U.S.'s economy this century because production is now cheaper in other countries. Second, politicians should not pressure entire generations into debt-financed education in an economy which does not necessitate a college-educated workforce, and in a time where diplomas no longer ensure financial security.
So what should our future economy look like? There may not be simple or convenient answers but our leaders need to do two things: be honest with the American people about the nature of our problem and create a long-term sustainable solution for jobs in the 21st century. We can't beg manufacturing jobs back into the U.S. but we very well may be able to create new job sectors in order to use the big-brained millennial generation and those that follow.