This Century Is Broken
David Brooks Feb. 21, 2017, New York Times
Image from article, with caption: A shuttered business in Wilkes-Barre, PA.
Most of us came of age in the last half of the 20th century and had our perceptions of
“normal” formed in that era. It was, all things considered, an unusually happy
period. No world wars, no Great Depressions, fewer civil wars, fewer plagues.
It’s looking like we’re not going to get to enjoy one of those times again. The 21st
century is looking much nastier and bumpier: rising ethnic nationalism, falling faith
in democracy, a dissolving world order.
At the bottom of all this, perhaps, is declining economic growth. As Nicholas
Eberstadt points out in his powerful essay “Our Miserable 21st Century,” in the
current issue of Commentary, between 1948 and 2000 the U.S. economy grew at a
per-capita rate of about 2.3 percent a year.
But then around 2000, something shifted. In this century, per-capita growth
has been less than 1 percent a year on average, and even since 2009 it’s been only 1.1
percent a year. If the U.S. had been able to maintain postwar 20th-century growth
rates into this century, U.S. per-capita G.D.P. would be over 20 percent higher than
it is today.
Slow growth strains everything else — meaning less opportunity, less optimism and
more of the sort of zero-sum, grab-what-you-can thinking that Donald Trump
specializes in. The slowdown has devastated American workers. Between 1985 and
2000, the total hours of paid work in America increased by 35 percent. Over the next
15 years, they increased by only 4 percent.
For every one American man aged 25 to 55 looking for work, there are three
who have dropped out of the labor force. If Americans were working at the same
rates they were when this century started, over 10 million more people would have
jobs. As Eberstadt puts it, “The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed
a dreadful collapse of work.”
That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities,
who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts
spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the
number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.
Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form
of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take
pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month
period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men
now has a felony conviction on his record.
This is no way for our fellow citizens to live. The Eberstadt piece confirms one
thought: The central task for many of us now is not to resist Donald Trump. He’ll
seal his own fate. It’s to figure out how to replace him — how to respond to the slow
growth and social disaffection that gave rise to him with some radically different
The hard part is that America has to become more dynamic and more protective
— both at the same time. In the past, American reformers could at least count on the
fact that they were working with a dynamic society that was always generating the
energy required to solve the nation’s woes. But as Tyler Cowen demonstrates in his
compelling new book, “The Complacent Class,” contemporary Americans have lost
Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less
adventurous and more static. For example, Americans used to move a lot to seize
opportunities and transform their lives. But the rate of Americans who are migrating
across state lines has plummeted by 51 percent from the levels of the 1950s and
Americans used to be entrepreneurial, but there has been a decline in start-ups
as a share of all business activity over the last generation. Millennials may be the
least entrepreneurial generation in American history. The share of Americans under
30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s.
Americans tell themselves the old job-for-life model is over. But in fact
Americans are switching jobs less than a generation ago, not more. The job
reallocation rate — which measures employment turnover — is down by more than a
quarter since 1990.
There are signs that America is less innovative. Accounting for population
growth, Americans create 25 percent fewer major international patents than in 1999.
There’s even less hunger to hit the open road. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds
had driver’s licenses. Now only half of Americans get a license by age 18.
In different ways Eberstadt and Cowen are describing a country that is
decelerating, detaching, losing hope, getting sadder. Economic slowdown, social
disaffection and risk aversion reinforce one another.
Of course nothing is foreordained. But where is the social movement that is
thinking about the fundamentals of this century’s bad start and envisions an
alternate path? Who has a compelling plan to boost economic growth? If Trump is
not the answer, what is?