Economic changes will require lifestyle changes

by Nathan Tegrotenhuis

Your twenties will be tough, dear Whitworth students. With the unemployment rate for ages 20 to 25 at 14.7percent and for ages 25 to 35 at 9.8 percent, young workers are having an even harder time finding work than the general population. The gridlocked government is not likely to help the economy recover, and the burden of student loans means that graduates are likely to work whatever job comes their way. Far more of us are educated than ever before, but the jobs that employ our educations are ever scarcer.

I doubt the job market will ever recover. The rise of technology has not empowered the worker. Instead, the expectations of workers have risen as they are expected to use technology to be more productive. Moreover, any job that can be automated will go the way of the typist and clerk.  In offices, the secretary has been replaced by the administrator, who handles the affairs of a whole team rather than a small group. Even in education, online classrooms with pre-recorded lectures will replace the personal classroom.

This does not have to be a bad thing. Why should people have to work hard, when technology can do the job with a fraction of the effort? The great hope of technology is that it will ease the lives of everyone. The great danger is that the fruits of the labor of machines will go only to those who own the machines.

Yet this is exactly what is happening today. The finance industry is another example of a sphere which was recently the domain of human experts. Yet today, automated trading machines using artificial intelligence quickly decide what to buy or sell and do it with far greater mathematical precision and quickness than a team of humans ever could. This has lead to some crazy shocks. On May 5, 2010 a bug in trading computers caused a sudden 10 percent drop in stock prices before they quickly recovered half that value. Despite glitches like this, the power of this technology has helped enable the finance industry to grow incredibly and accumulate an astonishing amount of wealth, which the occupiers of Wall Street rightly protest.

Although many jobs are being lost to technological advancement, Whitworth students may find some hope in the fact that it is much harder to program a machine to mimic a liberal arts student.  Machines will not be able to philosophize, deeply understand history or religion, or make beautiful art and music anytime soon. They will not take empathy on the poor or seek and advocate for solutions to human problems. Unfortunately, these vital roles are not well-rewarded in our society, and the support for such noble thinkers and doers may dry up as the majority struggle to pay their bills on time.

We must adjust our expectations. Economic growth will not sustain us. We, the self-esteem generation, have to let go of the mistaken belief that we deserve it all. You are not a unique snowflake. We cannot all be president. Instead, take the situation you are given, crummy though it may be, and run with it.

This means finding new ways to solve problems. Gardening is a great way to cut down on food costs. Think about the suburbs. Every house has a yard. Many are carefully cultivated to grow useless grass. We can grow food instead. Even in the cities, urban gardening is a movement to  bring agriculture to the rooftops, windowsills and vacant lots.

Energy is another bottleneck on economic growth. The energy market fuels a cycle of booms and busts. When energy is cheap, economies grow because everything is cheaper. But this growth cycle is not sustainable because it causes a boost on oil demand. Since the oil supply cannot quickly rise to meet demand, prices then rise dramatically and growth is exchanged for recession.

We can escape this cycle on our own. We don’t need governments to push for clean or local energy. Though it may help in the short run, in the long run it will only hurt as it dulls the economic pain. What is truly needed is another lifestyle change. To reduce our energy demand, we must grow and purchase locally, we must reduce our overall consumption and we must bike instead of drive. These changes will hurt, but they will happen anyway. It will be the only way for many of us to afford a good life.

Change can be easier if we do it together. Technology can help us too. Permaculture and aquaponics are new agriculture technologies that allow great amounts of food to be cheaply and easily produced in a small space. The bounty of technological progress can serve us all if we demand it. Finally, I encourage you – and myself – to find a community of people who practice a lifestyle you believe in and participate with all your might.

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