The American Dream—that hard work could lead anyone to prosperity, success and upward mobility—feels increasingly irrelevant for a growing and frighteningly large group of Americans. What will people do to attain economic and social security? Will the middle class survive? What new policies and strategies could we devise to help keep the American Dream alive?
Kirkpatrick: Now we will move into our first session, I’m very proud to moderate because this session really encapsulates why we’re doing Techonomy Detroit. We’re calling it “Was It Just a Dream?” Is the American dream still possible? What did it mean, what will it mean, at a time when the nature of a job is fundamentally shifting? And here are just a few statistics: In 2007, before the recession, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at 14,000. This year, the Dow is about 17,000. Yet, national unemployment today is 6% and was 4.6% back then. So unemployment has gone up as stocks have as well. And the disparity here in Detroit is even more extreme, and this is the kind of thing that we think really, for especially our out of town guests, highlights why it’s good to do this here. In 2007, unemployment in Detroit was 6.9%, high enough. Today, it’s 16.7%. The average wage is less now than it was seven years ago, whereas the average price of college tuition has gone up 80% in the last decade. These are the kind of things that are vexing realities of the modern world, and in order to address some of those kinds of phenomenon, the bigger picture of what’s happening to jobs in the economy, I want to bring up the first panel.
So let me just quickly begin by introducing this really extraordinary panel. It’s representative of a lot of key constituencies. Carol Goss, a Detroiter who’s been a long time community activist and deeply engaged here in this community, for many years was the president of the Skillman Foundation, which worked on all those kinds of things, and is now at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Program.
Next to her, a real prominent representative of the new economy, Danae Ringelmann, cofounder of Indiegogo. It’s her second time onstage here at Techonomy Detroit. Indiegogo being a crowd-funding platform that really is a key part of this new economy that’s emerging.
Elizabeth Shuler, who is the secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, not a kind of voice you hear often enough in tech-related conversations, so we’re super happy to have her part of this one.
Philip Zelikow, who is really hard to ID because he does so many different things. Right now he is executive director of an initiative on the American dream for the Markle Foundation, which Liz is involved with, and so am I, in fact. But he’s also a professor of history at the University of Virginia, where he’s been a dean, and he’s been involved in policy issues in Washington off and on throughout his entire career. He started out in the State Department. He’s a deep thinker about what’s happening with the new economy.
I was debating who to start with, I think I will start with you, Philip, because I do believe you have a unique ability to articulate some of these big issues, when you look at this issue of where we sit right now in the American economy, with jobs being transformed by automation and robotics, with an extraordinary upsurge of entrepreneurship that’s happening across the globe and also across the country, and yet, unemployment really, seriously problematic. Where do you think we are, and where are we going?
Zelikow: So I think the fundamental thing to understand, to step back and get a historical perspective, is that we and the colleagues who have joined me in a Markle Foundation initiative about America’s economic future, about how to rework America, we believe we’re at the early phases of a new era in the history of America, a new era as profound as the Industrial Revolution was. So in a way, imagine as if we were in an era comparable to 1880 or 1890 in America, when the economy was about to fundamentally transform. I think most Americans, even many people in this room, don’t fully grasp how fundamental this might be, right down to changes in the way things are made, things are produced, distributed, transported, marketed, the way businesses form, the way people are educated, that will be very deep changes.
So you ask yourself is this good for America? And here’s the paradox, David, which I think your statistics are calling out. This should be a really bright era of possibility. Why? The barriers to starting up and growing a business have never been lower. It’s never been easier to start up and grow a business, partly because of the enabling technologies that you can tap and access. It’s never been easier to get the personal development you need. It’s never been easier to get the education and training you need, in almost any subject, whenever you need it, than it is right now.
So if the barriers are falling to business development and the barriers are falling to human development, why are Americans more pessimistic about the future than they have ever been in the history of the Gallup Poll? That’s the paradox that we’re confronting. We think that’s because the default conversation about the economic future in Washington is about macroeconomic numbers, about whether or not the Fed ought to raise or lower interest rates by ten basis points, and how does the GDP number look. And, actually, those decisions are mostly irrelevant to what America’s economic future will look like. They’re mostly irrelevant to the way you would need to reinvent your education system, reinvent your financial system to enable better business development. It’s a conversation locked up into the macroeconomic thinking that we began developing in the 1940s and 1950s, that was suited for another economic era, and that is important, but is relatively secondary to the issues that are really going to shape the new economy, and the conversations most of the people here will be having all day long, which will not be about whether the Fed ought to change the interest rates by ten basis points. But Americans look at that conversation, they see it all bollixed up, they see unemployment rates—which, by the way, are increasingly not very meaningful in telling you much about what’s really going on in the workforce—
Kirkpatrick: Because so many people are withdrawing from even trying?
Zelikow: They’re withdrawing, but also, the whole way unemployment indicators are measured doesn’t capture full workforce participation, it doesn’t capture the nature of people’s work very well. You can even lower the unemployment rate but, actually, middle-skilled jobs are going begging, or not being filled. Median wages are going down. So instead, you need to re-imagine, as if you were in 1890, re-imagine a whole agenda for America’s economic future that deeply changes the conversation from kind of the dismal conversation we have now, where Americans basically think, yeah, the economy is sinking, and all we’re going to argue about are the Band-Aids. We’re going to argue about whether to redistribute a little income at the margin or not. But those are palliatives compared to the conversation we could be having about how we build a future in which America could thrive in the twenty-first century as it did in the twentieth century. And that’s kind of the big picture conversation that Techonomy is trying to foster, and that’s the kind of conversation we need to foster more broadly for the country as a whole, because the possibilities are very exciting, but our institutions are stuck in the past and are not yet geared to realize those possibilities.
Kirkpatrick: Well, that is an understatement. So thank you for leading us there. Liz, the AFL-CIO is still a national organization with its ear on the ground all over the place. You know what workers are feeling. You have an interesting role in the history of American economy. Where do you see it all going as technology is transforming the nature of work, particularly with automation and robotics, and yet, this national malaise that Philip referred to?
Shuler: First of all, I just want to say thank you, David, and to Techonomy, because he is right, this isn’t a place we usually find ourselves, and thanks for the opportunity, and to Wayne State as well, for being such a hub for these kinds of conversations.
And for those of you who don’t know—which I can’t take for granted anymore that people know what the AFL-CIO is, especially young people. So we are an umbrella organization of 57 unions. We represent 12 million working men and women, and we range anywhere from professional football players and actors to nurses and teachers and professionals, to folks who are in construction and beyond. So it’s a real range. And I am out there talking to people every single day and advocating for workers to have a voice in this economy, because what we are seeing is, as the President put it, the greatest challenge of our time is inequality. And we are seeing, if you think about it—and sometimes we get in these rooms and talk about it in the policy sense, but if you think about real people and what they’re going through, and even just drawing say a one-mile radius around where we are sitting right now—certainly in the auditorium, we have a lot of tech-minded people, ranging from CEOs and professors and businesspeople to students, right? But then if you go out a little further and you think about the folks who are driving buses and the person who is the housekeeper in your hotel room, and police officers on the street keeping the traffic moving or keeping us safe, all of those folks, in retail, in any kind of setting you can imagine, sometimes we go through our day and forget that there are thousands and thousands of people making this country move, right? And we often are blind to it in some ways. But those are the people that are actually feeling the brunt of what’s happening in this economy.
We’re seeing, again, wages have stagnated, if not fallen, for the majority of people. Wealth is being concentrated at the top. The insecurity people are feeling, where they don’t know if they’re going to get enough hours in their week. They’re working part-time jobs, piecing them together to make full employment and trying to figure out how to care for their kids. Scheduling, for example, we’ve heard a lot about lately, but people have been grappling with this for a long time. You can’t plan your day, you can’t take a college course, you can’t find someone to take care of your kids on short notice when a retail employer says, after three hours, “Oh, we don’t have enough customers, so you’re going home.” Sick days, something we all take for granted. People are insecure because they have to come to work sick, because if not, they don’t get paid. And think about that in a restaurant setting. You know, would you like a side of flu with your sweet potato fries, right?
So this is what’s going on out there. And I think our job, or the reason I wanted to be here was to really talk about, as we move forward in this changing economy, do we want to abandon the value set that makes us Americans, right? That we do stand for fairness, we do stand for equality, we do stand for rewarding a hard day’s work with a decent level of pay. And so I think that’s what we need to remember as we continue through this conversation is really being rooted in our American values, while we know technology is going to change the way we do work.
Kirkpatrick: Well, the American dream isn’t getting the greatest recommendation thus far in this panel, I’m afraid. And I think the pressure’s on Danae, as the optimistic representative of the new economy, are growing—and I’m going to allow them to grow slightly more by going to Carol next.
So, Carol, what is happening here in Detroit, and how do you see the changes that technology’s bringing to the economy both helping to create the problem and potentially laying the groundwork for some solutions?
Goss: So, again, thank you for allowing me to be on this panel. It’s really an exciting conference. But let me just say a couple of things. One, there’s so much change happening, not only in Detroit, but across the country, that involves technology. And, you know, at Harvard, I was at a luncheon and sat next to this young man in his thirties who has developed a car that flies. And in that conversation, we talked about cars that are not going to need drivers, that can talk to each other, and planes that don’t need—I’m not sure what that would be like, but planes that don’t need a pilot. But the technology is moving quickly, and my concern about the American dream is that we haven’t prepared everyone to participate at the same level.
And so I was reading Patrick Sharkey’s book, “Stuck in Place,” and this is really true in Detroit. There are generational neighborhoods of black and brown families with children who are in mostly failing schools, whose children are not prepared to even start school, who graduate often without the skills for the technology and the jobs related to that technology, who don’t have that skill set. They don’t read or do math at that level. So if you live in one of those communities, and your parents have lived in that community, and your grandparents have lived in those communities, you’re not likely to participate at the same level. And so my concern is that, as we see all these advancements, it’s a really exciting time, but a significant number of black and brown children who live in concentrated poverty will not be able to participate. And that to me is a concern. So we have to be very intentional about it, making connections between schools and work and internships and apprenticeships, but things that really get all young people—that create a more level playing field, but get all young people ready for this exciting time.
So we talk about entrepreneurship, and I think entrepreneurship and technology are really important and probably a part of the future as it moves forward. And yet, how many young people that live in these communities even know entrepreneurs, see that as a possibility, know about the high tech jobs? So we’ve got a lot of work to do if we are going to get everybody ready to participate, and if we’re going to move them into jobs where they can earn a meaningful wage to care for themselves and their families.
Kirkpatrick: Well, drawing those connections together is what we really think we’re doing at Techonomy, and it’s not easy because there are a lot of strands to pull together. So, Danae, what we do believe also at Techonomy though is that there is enormous possibility if you can get a grip on these extraordinary new forces of efficiency and connectivity that are coming to the modern world. And Indiegogo has kind of harnessed that in an extremely creative and successful way. And we remain super optimistic. Are you optimistic, given what you’ve heard so far, about where the economy is going to go as we move more and more in a technologized direction?
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Why? Give a case here.
Ringelmann: So I say that ‘yes’ from seven years of experience of trying to build a company that is democratizing access, in our case to funding. But I’m part of now an industry which is being driven by other entrepreneurs like myself who are falling into entrepreneurship and falling into technology, not because we want to be entrepreneurs or technologists, but because we want to make real change, and we’re just realizing that business is a more robust way to make sustainable change, and technology is a medium of business that is the fastest way to getting to that sustainable change. And so I would call myself a default entrepreneur, a default technologist, simply because I saw a problem, which was millions of ideas going unborn, millions of people who couldn’t get their films off the ground, their small businesses off the ground, their dream trips off the ground. Whatever it was, they couldn’t move forward. It wasn’t for lack of heart and hustle, it wasn’t for lack of having good ideas. It actually wasn’t even for lack of having an audience or a customer base that wanted that thing to come to life. They literally just lacked access to money, because the whole financial system that has evolved to date has been one that has been now riddled with what I call gatekeepers, or inefficient nodes, purveyors of capital who decide which ideas are worthy and which are not. Which is ironic because the whole point of folks getting into finance, whether you’re a venture capitalist, a banker, even a person who sits at a studio that decides to green light films, the whole reason you probably got into that business is because you wanted to say yes, you wanted to unleash ideas. But because of the risk inherent in the system of not knowing what the future holds, you end up saying no more than you say yes.
And so what we’ve done is we’ve used technology, we’ve used the transparency of the Internet to literally blow up the gatekeeping system, put the power back into the hands of the people to decide which ideas come to life, because they now can fund them themselves and aggregate, even if it’s only $5, $10, $100. That’s enough to vote with your dollar, and in essence, what Indiegogo’s becoming is not just a way to raise money—especially when the traditional system is locking you out, because you can’t get approval for a bank loan, or a venture capitalist won’t call you back because you don’t come from the right neighborhood or the right school and they don’t know your track record there, all these biases that keep capital inefficient. Because we’ve created this open ecosystem where all ideas can thrive, it’s not just an alternative form of finance now. It’s actually becoming a way to mitigate market and execution risk, which are the two other risks that live and breathe within this idea of entrepreneurship. Market risk is the risk that you’re creating something that nobody wants, or not enough people want, and execution risk is maybe you’re solving a really good problem, but the way you’re solving it, maybe it’s a product that you’re pricing the wrong way, you have the wrong features, whatever. It doesn’t really match what the market wants. Indiegogo’s now become this way to reduce this market and execution risk, and therefore, make the entire system flow more easily.
So, because of that—that’s not something I knew when I started Indiegogo. I started Indiegogo because I was pissed off about how unfair financing was, and how many people were being literally left out of the system and not served. And because of this, though, technology has made everything flow more efficiently, and with that, I have optimism that things like Khan Academy that is democratizing education, or TaskRabbit, which is democratizing tasks, you know, all these technologies which have started in the kind of college-educated tech-loving communities will, in order for those companies to grow—which these entrepreneurs know they have to grow; they’ve taken money—they will find a way to cross the chasm and get everybody involved.
Kirkpatrick: One of the essential subthemes of this whole day is inclusion, right? And what Carol was saying before about a lot of these kids don’t even know that it’s possible to start a business—they don’t even know it’s possible to study programming, they don’t know it’s possible to raise money on crowd funding. And you and I were discussing this as we were backstage in the green room, about how the whole sharing economy thing, as much as it’s great—and we’re going to talk about it later, and I hope this is a part of that discussion—it really is still, to a large extent, a middle class and up phenomenon, simply because you have to have a sort of sophisticated understanding of how everything works even to use it, right? Do you worry about that? And how are you going to get these kids into the kind of system that crowd funding and the sharing economy and the maker movement are creating as a set of possibilities?
Ringelmann: I think there are two big shifts that need to happen. First is a mindset shift, and the second is a value shift in our culture. And neither of those is going to come from policies and government laws or anything. Culture changes because the people change it. And so the mind shift I’m talking about is that we all need to recognize there is an entrepreneur inside of us. I think our education system needs to change, in that it does not recognize that. The only person that taught me about starting anything were my parents, because they themselves were forced into entrepreneurship when my sister was little and my dad was walking cross-town to pick up moving jobs. You know, he’d stand on a corner and hopefully a truck would drive by and need extra labor for the day, and he would jump on the truck, and he went all the way across town one morning and they didn’t need any more laborers, and he couldn’t actually buy my sister and I milk for the day. And that forced him to be like, “I’m never going to put my family at risk again. I’m going to go start my own moving company and control my own destiny.” But it took my parents learning it the hard way to understand that, and then they instilled it in us. And when I was seven and I wanted something, my dad turned to me, he’s like, “I don’t get you what you want, I get you what you need. If you want it, you can go make the money. If you want, you can go start your own cookie stand, because that’s probably a way to make the money.” And that’s where I learned that I needed to have money to go buy ingredients, and then he’s like, “Well, I’ll loan you the money, but you have to pay me back.” And I was seven, and that’s when I learned that you needed money to make money.
Kirkpatrick: Typical parental dialogue.
Ringelmann: But the mind shift there is like you don’t—no one was teaching that to me at school. And especially as a girl, you’re taught to be quiet, don’t misbehave, pay attention, don’t make a scene, follow the rules. That doesn’t prepare you for life. And so that’s the mindset shift.
The value shift, that I’ll be shorter on, is just, I think—and I’ve just started thinking a lot about this, that the government and just how we run our daily lives, we have very much of a protectionist approach versus an empowerment approach. And I honestly think if we found a way to shift—which I think you shift mindsets and you shift culture through things like business. That’s the most viable way to do it. But if we were to shift more to an empowerment mindset, which is like, let’s give people the education, let’s give them the tools—now it’s cheap and free, practically to give this to kids and adults—and then give them basically the ingredients for success, but they still have to go do it, I think that will lead to a lot more positive change than us trying to protect. And a good example of this is everybody gets to drive, right? You just have to take a driving test. That’s actually an empowerment approach, versus like with equity crowd funding right now, Main Street people are still not allowed to invest in things that they know. And that’s a protectionist—
Kirkpatrick: This is so pertinent. But, Philip and Liz, both, I’d like to hear you address this question of, is the job of the future going to be an entrepreneur, and if so, how does that fit into the AFL-CIO? But, Philip, first, when you look at jobs in the future, I mean that’s a big thing to generalize about, but what’s the most salient difference we’re going to be experiencing from how we think of it today? Because I frankly think it’s already pretty far down the path to where it’s going to go in the future anyway.
Zelikow: So if you buy my argument earlier that we’re on the early phase of a change of this enormous magnitude, anyone who predicts how many jobs there will be 10 or 20 years from now is someone whom you should immediately distrust. Nobody knows. I don’t know. Nobody knows. So I’m very humble, as a historian, about predicting the future in an era of fundamental change of this scale.
So what you can bet on, though, is investment in policies that will broaden participation in productive life. In other words, do everything you can to make it easier and more flexible for people to get education and training at any point in their lives that they need it, in the way that they need it, and then find ways to credentialize that and display it. Broaden participation. And you can also push hard on trying to leverage that technology in ways that upskill people, rather than just deskill them. Because, actually, the default initial phase of the new technology is “I have a business process, I have repetitive functions. I have enough throughputs that it’s worth it to me to invest the capital to buy robots to replace the people performing the repetitive functions. I don’t have to change my fundamental business process. I can be lazy. I can just use robots in my existing business process and deskill.” Of course, technology empowers people at the frontlines in new ways. If you invest in upskilling your employees—and we helped inspire the partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University, in which Starbucks is massively investing in upskilling their employees. Whatever degree program they enroll in, they’ll pay for them to complete college, because they believe that will improve customer service and retention in their stores. If you have a home healthcare aid or a pharmaceutical clerk who could be upskilled because they can be linked back to doctors and nurses with Google Glass or something like that and you invest in making that home healthcare aid more skilled, you actually are changing the whole business process you had. Now, that’s hard. But actually, if you’ll invest in changing your business process to leverage the technology to empower people at the frontlines, you could actually have a much stronger business with greatly improved employees at higher skills. And you can see this in specialty manufacturing, in batch process production. You can see this in a lot of different fields. So the point is, if you bet on things that broaden participation and upskill people, those are bets that are more likely to help produce the America you’re going to want, even if you can’t place a safe bet on how many jobs there are going to be at any given time. It’s just the odds of positive outcomes are just bound to go up if you steer your policies deliberately and consciously in this direction, as businesses, as educators, as government agencies.
I’ll make this point, when you talk about TaskRabbit or other things, because Liz will be concerned about this. What’s happening is the old structures that made Americans feel secure, that surrounded work and welfare, are eroding. I had this job, the job came with all these fixed benefits, which were provided by the large employer, and we had this whole structure. Those older structures are eroding. The answer to that is not then just to say, “Oh, well, that’s too bad.” The answer to that, and to think hard, is to say, okay, those were the structures to provide workers with security in the industrial era, and those were the structures we had to organize labor in the industrial era. In this new networked economy, what are the new structures we need to design that provide the security and reassurance that workers will still need and want, if those older structures are eroding? That’s the creative conversation we need to have now. Those may be different structures. But that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to be inferior. But if you don’t have the conversation, the default mode is a sense of erosion and drift.
Kirkpatrick: That’s for sure. And I’m still not hearing tons of optimism about the American dream. I want to move quickly, because I want to ask you guys, if there’s questions or comments, please begin to migrate towards the mikes, because I want to hear your thoughts. But, quickly, I want to hear from Liz and Carol, briefly. Because, Liz, I know AFL-CIO, even though it doesn’t actually benefit your members that much, is a big advocate of increasing the minimum wage, right? But if the future is one where people have to be more entrepreneurial, it may not—minimum wage is just a stopgap measure, right? I mean, how do you think of what the worker is going to have to be able to do in five to ten years?
Shuler: Big questions. So I wanted to echo also what Philip said about upskilling, and certainly, the notion of what do the institutions look like moving forward, including the AFL-CIO, right? And that’s kind of why we’re here as well is, you know, what can we do to make the changes that we need to, to match the needs of workers in the future? And that is the big question.
But on entrepreneurship, I think it’s great. We would endorse people going out and being creative. But at the same time, if you don’t have people to buy your products, where does that leave you? I mean we can have people going out and creating all these small businesses, but if we don’t create the demand in the economy by giving people enough money to put in their pockets to actually buy those products, then, you know, it’s probably pretty short-lived. And it is still a small percentage of the economy. And so I think the question in our minds is, how do we get to scale. Here we are in the territory of the auto industry and the UAW, for example. I mean just knowing the history of that industry and how it started, there were a bunch of entrepreneurial automakers all over the place, and seeing how that industry has evolved, and how Henry Ford, for example, recognized he needed skilled workers, and to pay them enough that they could buy the car that they were making. And so I think that’s kind of the big question we’re left is, you know, if we have a lot of small businesses out there—it can be done. I mean you look at the business model of a Wal-Mart versus a Costco, certainly Costco’s not to the scale of Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart is actually pushing forward a model that suppresses wages, whereas Costco is in the same business, using the same technology, but paying high road, high wage, using that model instead. So we know it can be done. They’re profitable. It’s just a matter of what type of a model are we going to create.
Kirkpatrick: Right. Well, similar example, In-N-Out Burger, which is on the West Coast, paying way more than McDonald’s and Burger King. And so there are companies in these industries that are succeeding with a higher wage model.
But, you know, Carol, you’re at Harvard right now, and I think one of the fascinating things, which I’m sure many people in this room are experiencing, is that the elite kids that are coming out of college today, almost without exception, or are in college, I mean they understand entrepreneurship, and many, many, many more than in the past realize it would be really cool to start a company. And even if they’re not doing it, they want to go to a startup, or else they want to start a startup. And these are the kids that you walk by every day on the campus at Harvard, there’s no question about it. But you yourself were saying a minute ago, you know, these kids in Detroit, many of them don’t even know that that’s a world that exists. And you’ve been an education activist much of your career. So how can we possibly change the education system, with all of the problems we have in this country with education, to embrace that reality?
Goss: No, that’s a really good point, because I absolutely agree that these young people don’t see, in their own communities, businesses that they could run themselves. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have the skills to do it. They just don’t see that as an opportunity for them. So I think that within our current education systems, that we have to begin presenting that as an option, and that is very possible and doable, and it’s happening in other places, using project-based learning, pairing kids with entrepreneurs—
Kirkpatrick: You mean other countries, or…?
Goss: No, even with—
Kirkpatrick: It’s certainly happening more in other countries than here, I would assert, yes.
Goss: It does happen more in other countries than here, but it is possible for it to happen here. Look, I mean I grew up during the Civil Rights era. In our neighborhood, the people that lived in those communities had to run those businesses. They had to be entrepreneurs. So they had the barbershop and the cleaners. If you grow up in a community where you never see this, where the people that run them don’t look like you, you don’t see that as an option for you. But we could be intentional, in the vocational level, with helping kids to understand that entrepreneurship using technology is a really important part of making a living for yourself, and providing satisfaction for you as a young adult. And I do—I mean I took a class with a lot of young people at Harvard on entrepreneurship, who to start a business, how to get capital, how to build out your stakeholders. I mean it—
Kirkpatrick: I bet that was a big class.
Goss: It was a huge class. And all these really smart kids were—
Kirkpatrick: It probably didn’t even exist five years ago, that class, yes.
Goss: That’s right. But even still, they were learning how to do this and to not be afraid to do it. We can do this within schools. I mean I agree with what Philip said, some of our institutions have to change. One of those is our education systems.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, that’s a minor matter, though, right? I mean, come on, changing our education system, with the way we have it funded with property taxes, and we can’t even get them learning to read in some places—I mean I was sitting across from the mayor at dinner last night and, you know, Detroit schools, he was talking about them. They are in rough shape.
Danae, you had something you wanted to say.
Ringelmann: When I was talking about entrepreneurship, it doesn’t just mean you need—if we get to realize there’s an entrepreneur inside of all of us, it doesn’t mean we have to go start our own companies. I think it’s a mindset shift that is more that, “I can solve problems. I can navigate my own career. I can find the solution that meets my needs as someone who wants to do meaningful work.” And so large companies need more people to think entrepreneurial. It’s called intrapreneurship. And I think the more we can get young kids to be thinking about solving problems, not waiting for the jobs to come to them, but thinking about what their strengths are, what do they love to do, what are they good at, and then leaning in more, into their lives and into kind of the work that’s out there, and then teaching people not just skills, but also teaching them how to always acquire new skills—because no one’s going to have the same job for next 20, 30 years. We have to adapt. And so the main thing is teach kids how to adapt, which is learn how to learn. It’s not just—
Kirkpatrick: It’s not about just going and getting a job.
Ringelmann: No. And, as my father said, a job always meant just over broke. Which is like a mindset—again, a mindset thing. And I was a teacher in this program for a while called Wall Street Wizards, where in Oakland we were targeting at-risk youth and trying to teach them entrepreneurial principles. And just the concept of teaching them about ownership versus an income, like if you find money to open your own beauty salon—and I literally worked with young girls thinking this way, because this was their reality. Their mothers were beauticians. That was their reality, and so they always thought, “I just want to be a beautician too, because that’s what I know.” And then, working with them, being like, “If you can raise this amount of money and open your own shop, and then you make this amount of money to your shop,” and you actually translate it to how much they can then earn and they realize that their earning potential is unlimited and that they’re not capped at their salary, or their paycheck, or their hourly wage, that mindset shift was like—it blew their mind. And that’s the kind of reality you want to start to expose kids to, and then you empower them with the education, empower them with skills, empower them with the learning how to learn, and then the sky’s the limit.
Kirkpatrick: We have a couple of people that—did you have a quick comment you wanted to make?
Goss: No, go to the questions.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Please identify yourself.
A: My name is Michael Jefferies, I’m from New Mind Group. I really have two parts to the question. There are a lot of different definitions of what the American Dream is, and that’s shifted over the years, so the first part of the question is how do you define the American dream? And then the second part is, if you could do anything tomorrow, what’s that first step to giving everyone the American Dream, or bringing it back or whatever that is? What would you do if you could do anything, and then how do you define the American Dream?
Kirkpatrick: In order to move quickly—I know you’ve thought an awful lot about the American Dream. That’s even part of the definitional thing of the Markle initiative. Quickly, how do you define it, Philip?
Zelikow: Abundant possibilities, second chances. Abundant possibility used to mean the land. But then it became kind of freedom to reinvent yourself, pursue new paths. That sense of possibility is part of it. But also the sense of second chances. America was one of the first countries that replaced debtor prisons with bankruptcy relief. We have educational structures and business structures now where, if you get off the highway, it’s awfully difficult to get back on the on ramp, because we’ve built these education factories, and if you leave the factory at the wrong point, it’s very difficult to get back in. We could build so much more flexible institutions than the ones we have now, which were great for the era of mass production, but are not designed for a networked world.
I am not pessimistic about American possibility. But I’m also not passive, and I don’t think any of us want to be passive. The possibilities right now are enormous. But if you’re just kind of passive and just say, “Well, don’t worry, it’ll all turn out for the best because we’re a wonderful country,” that’s not good enough.
Kirkpatrick: Well, we’re going to hear, as the program goes on later today, that some countries, like for example the UK, and there’s several others, have made the decision that every single student in the country needs to study coding. We haven’t even come close—we haven’t even had that dialogue in the United States. So talking about the American dream is all fine and good, but competiveness is at risk. That’s another matter, but—and I’m glad you’re optimistic, Philip. I love that about you.
I’d like to hear just the other three of you, quickly, like just in a sentence, what’s the single biggest thing you would like to see change to improve the ability to achieve some kind of American dream?
Shuler: So I hate to continue with my Debbie Downer posture here, but I think when we talk about American dream, most people think it is disappearing, and young people think it doesn’t exist anymore. And so I think most people say the American Dream is now just not having to struggle. But I will be more positive and say a broadly shared prosperity, because I think, as the economy grows, as we shift and change, we want to make sure that not only a few people are benefitting, and that everyone is included in this dream of how we remake the economy.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, that’s helpful.
Ringelmann: I wish that tomorrow there was—and I’ll explain this more—there was an Indiegogo campaign that ran in every single community across the world. And the reason I say just one—we’re in every country right now, but we’re still like focused in technology, or the arts, or certain types of small business industries. We’re still working to kind of penetrate out. But if there was an Indiegogo campaign in every community that ran, that in itself is inspiration to get people to try. Because what we’ve seen is, you know, we’ve had musicians that wanted to go on tour, wanted to play music. They did an Indiegogo campaign, That communicated to a sister of the musician that she could use Indiegogo to start her own bakery, because she had been dreaming about doing that forever and finally had the guts to do it because she saw her brother do it. And all people need to see is a little bit of success in their own community, and that changes their outlook—
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Well, that is optimistic, because these tools are growing quickly, so the inspirational factor may come along.
Goss: Okay, so in my life, I always believed that the American dream was improving one generation over another. And so that by education and other things, that your life circumstances would be better. I don’t think that happens today, that there are many young people who are not going to see themselves better off than their parents. There’s lots of data talking about that. So what I would be most hopeful about is if we had the public will to start making sure that every child was ready to go to school, that they were ready for kindergarten, that they graduated from high school with the right skillset in reading and math and science, so that they would be prepared for the jobs of today.
Kirkpatrick: That was great. Okay, please—and quickly identify yourself.
A: Hi, my name is Tiffany. Philip, you actually kind of touched on what I wanted to ask about, and that is the role of traditional education in our American dream today, especially with two educators, one of which is my alma mater, the University of Virginia. But I considered my education, as a first generation college student, as the way out, but do you see that—I mean that was ten years ago. Do you see that still playing a role in the American dream going forward, for the people coming out today that are—you know, you hear millennials facing 50% unemployment coming out with a college degree, and you hear the high profile type stories, or college dropouts. What role do you see traditional education playing in the future?
Zelikow: The traditional institutions were designed to thrive in the industrial age. We built education factories with grade-level assembly lines, and they were administratively efficient for the mass production of literate young people who learned what America was in an age of mass immigration. That’s the way we designed the public high school system for that age. But imagine we have technology now that allows us to personalize education for every single person in ways that were undreamt of even ten years ago, where it can be modular. Where courses don’t have to be 14 weeks long; they can be one week long or five weeks long. When you don’t have to take courses in the same sequence. You can vary this in enormously different ways, and you don’t just think people get their education between a given set of ages, they get their education when they’re ready for it and when they need it, and when they’re able to handle it, at different times. It’s a deep potential redesign, but the potential to do that and make education available has never been better at a time when there’s an enormous gap in the middle skill area, where millions of employees could find jobs in middle skill opportunities if they can connect to the educational possibilities that are out there for them. But we now have a labor market that runs on 1950s principles and an education system that was designed for success at the turn of the last century.
Kirkpatrick: Yes. Okay, we’re going to talk about that training thing later too. Carol has an urgent thing.
Goss: No, I just wanted to respond and say that postsecondary education is absolutely essential to getting a job that pays a meaningful wage today. So I just want to put that out there, just saying that, traditional or nontraditional, it is essential that you’re prepared to do that.
Ringelmann: And I think there is actually a growing responsibility of large corporations to become part of the educational system. The only way to retain talent, because everyone’s going to be looking to leave their job for the next best thing, is to—what they need to focus on is retention, and the way to retain is to educate and empower and help them grow and get new skills. And so if you just look at your worker as someone who’s just going to do the same job for the next five years, you’re looking at higher turnover, higher cost of training, all that stuff. It makes no economic sense. It actually makes sense for you to invest in your people, train them, continue to build their skills so that they stay with you.
Shuler: And as a country, invest in higher education.