Despite strides in jobs and the economy, Americans remain pessimistic about their future, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Three-quarters of respondents said that they are not confident that their children’s generation will be better off than their own. More than half reportedly believe that a growing income gap between the rich and poor undermines the American dream.
The fact is that technology and globalization are changing our way of life. While enriching us in many ways, these transformative forces have eliminated secure jobs and eroded economic security for millions. Recognizing the challenges ahead, the Markle Foundation launched its Markle Economic Future Initiative to identify solutions and partnerships to help all Americans flourish in today’s networked world.
Where some see only challenges ahead, the members of the Markle Initiative and I see opportunity.
We start by stepping back to consider the full picture of our complex society. From here we see not only symptoms of alienation and exhausted institutions, but, more importantly, the promise and opportunity of tomorrow.
Next, we look to our past for inspiration. America has experienced social and economic transformation before. But each time it has emerged stronger as a result. Yet hardly anyone has been able to comprehend the scale and the meaning of such periods when they were just beginning.
While we may not know precisely how this next chapter in our nation’s rich story may unfold, we can begin to reimagine and rebuild what has been the bedrock of our nation: the American dream. It has always been a dream about fair chances and fresh starts. It’s the dream that hard work, talent, and creativity can lead to a life of abundance—not just the material kind, but an abundance of ideas, possibilities, and life journeys.
The future can present opportunities to engage in a more “distributed” economy, to enjoy a near-infinite variety of identities and pursuits, to learn from and be enriched by more flexible, adaptable social structures than ever before. Local communities and their governments may drive the action as much or more than national ones do. Openness to the widest, most diversified participation could once more become a distinctively American advantage.
In theory, the American economic future should be promising, exciting. It should be easier to start and grow businesses. And it should be easier for everyone to get the education they need, whenever in life they need it.
But right now the theory is not proving out. Business growth and entrepreneurialism is not as robust as needed. Educational improvement is slow to take off. Why? Because theory is practiced by institutions, by the collective habits of a people. And America’s institutions have not yet caught up with the possibilities being created by this new era in economic history.
Don’t expect technology to work miracles. Instead, the great challenge is: How can we change our institutions and our national habits to grab the opportunities in a new economy and different world? That is a tremendous agenda. But we should not be discouraged by it. America has been here before.
After all, the America of today was yesterday’s triumph of collective industrial design. In earlier times, cities grew up around the ports, railroads, and highways that brought supplies to factories and took finished products away. Farmers moved to cities for work. Farms became agricultural factories. Roads connected people to retail hubs where products were sold.
The system ran on vast quantities of energy. The energy was abundant but costly, limited by the capacity to find fossil fuels and bring them affordably to where they were needed.
Children attended educational hubs organized by age and marched through prescribed curriculum, earning certificates that attested to their completion of high school, college, or beyond. Armed with certificates, people could gain jobs.
Workplaces and firms served as central gathering places for workers, and America used these firms to outfit employees and their families with health care, retirement plans, and tax collection. The workplace defined identity and served as a principal source of community.
The organization of government was based on industrial models. So was the organization of health care.
The industrial workday set standard patterns of when people expected to work, play, and go to school. The term “9 to 5″ passed into common usage, along with terms like “weekend.”
As industrial structures changed, people were expected to keep up. Increasingly they could not, often because they were trapped in practices based on the older structures. None of these patterns were natural features of American society. The deliberate industrial design of today’s America is about 140 years old.
A different kind of economy and society beckons: disaggregated, decentralized, and networked. How it develops will vary by community and person, depending on our choices. Past revolutions, including the Industrial Revolution, unfolded differently from one place to the next. Some choices enlarged the scope of social betterment. Others confined it. Intentions matter. Leadership matters.
Recognizing that technology and globalization are rapidly transforming our society and economy, the Markle Foundation last year launched its Markle Economic Future Initiative. Co-chaired by Markle President Zoë Baird and Howard Schultz, chairman, president, and CEO of Starbucks, the Initiative is bringing together a broad coalition of leaders who are committed to finding ways to help all Americans successfully transition to today’s economy.
We believe still bolder and better ideas are yet to come. We seek to identify and help nurture them. We now have the ability and the responsibility to leverage the forces of change; to create a better world for ourselves and our children.
Let’s challenge ourselves to identify the core design principles for the next era of American life. What kind of America do we want to shape for the future?
Philip Zelikow is the Visiting Managing Director of the Markle Foundation and the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is a member of the Markle Economic Future Initiative and spoke at a session about the American dream at the Sept. 16 Techonomy Detroit conference.
This article originally appeared at Techonomy.