The Last Time We Were Here

By Chike Aguh

The last time America faced an economic transition akin to what we are facing today was at the turn of the 20th century. During that time, we were moving from a country in which most Americans relied on agriculture to make a living, to one in which families supported themselves with jobs in manufacturing, in industries such as textile and steel. During that time of economic and demographic change (as new immigrants were arriving on our shores), the American government didn’t step back, but rather it stepped up.  And, it did so with actions that matched the magnitude of the problems.  Our government outlawed child labor, instituted the forty-hour workweek and safeguarded the right to organize.  Additionally, our government confronted undue corporate power by breaking up monopolies and regulating the most egregious abuses of capitalism.  Furthermore, it also made two of the most massive investments in workers in human history up to that point: universal American public education and the GI Bill. These actions by our government, supported by the American citizenry in ways large and small, helped us conquer that change and lay the economic foundation of the American century.

As we proceeded into the postwar era, another shift began to take place: one defined by globalization, service delivery, and technology. A new transition had to face trading regimes that did not always prioritize American workers and new technologies that moved at speeds heretofore unseen.  At the same time, Americans were moving from the factory floor to service and content delivery enterprises.  Importantly, that content and those services were not just delivered to people in America, but around the world.  This trend was accelerated exponentially with the advent of the internet and is now being further augmented with the advent of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous vehicles.  However, unlike in the past, our government has not stepped up during this transition, but rather has stepped back.  Since the dawn of the Reagan era, we have been told that government cannot and should not step in to help us meet this challenge.  And it is average Americans, from black communities in our biggest cities to former industrial centers of our heartland, who have paid the price for this inaction.  We must step up to winning the future of work.

Chike Aguh (Chee-Kay Ah-Goo) is a Technology and Human Rights Fellow at the Harvard Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Venture Partner at New Markets Venture Partners. He holds degrees from Tufts University (B.A.), Harvard University (Ed.M; MPA), and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (MBA). He is a Fulbright Scholar, former Council of Foreign Relations term member and Presidential Leadership Scholar.

Chike Aguh
Chike Aguh writes about public policy and developments in US government