But the country has not developed any major new industries that employ large and growing numbers of workers.
There is no contemporary version of the 1870s railroads, the 1920s auto industry or even the 1990s Internet sector. Total economic output over the last decade, as measured by the gross domestic product, has grown more slowly than in any 10-year period during the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or ’90s.
Perhaps the most important reason, beyond the financial crisis, is the overall skill level of the work force. The United States is the only rich country in the world that has not substantially increased the share of young adults with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree over the past three decades. Some less technical measures of human capital, like the percentage of children living with two parents, have deteriorated. The country has also chosen not to welcome many scientists and entrepreneurs who would like to move here.
The relationship between skills and economic success is not an exact one, yet it is certainly strong enough to notice, and not just in the reams of peer-reviewed studies on the subject. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and much of Northern Europe have made considerable educational progress since the 1980s, for instance. Their unemployment rates, which were once higher than ours, are now lower. Within this country, the 50 most educated metropolitan areas have an average jobless rate of 7.3 percent, according to Moody’s Analytics; in the 50 least educated, the average rate is 11.4 percent.
Despite the media’s focus on those college graduates who are struggling, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that people with a four-year degree — who have an unemployment rate of just 4.3 percent — are barely experiencing an economic downturn.
Are we going to blame this on Wall Street?
We may be seeing a new strain of mass behaviour, one that results from the meeting of two factors, one social and the other technological. On the one hand, large numbers of people who are floating free from wider communities and who are thus both less bound by their norms and more vulnerable to influence from people with whom they have no enduring relationship. On the other, technologies that instantly transmit information to participants about what others are doing, supercharging the feedback loops and obliterating their sense of individual responsibility.
When you’re not part of a community you are more likely to join the herd.