By Thomas L Friedman
London burns. The Arab Spring triggers popular rebellions against autocrats across the Arab world. The Israeli Summer brings 250,000 Israelis into the streets, protesting the lack of affordable housing and the way their country is now dominated by an oligopoly of crony capitalists. From Athens to Barcelona, European town squares are being taken over by young people railing against unemployment and the injustice of yawning income gaps, while the angry Tea Party emerges from nowhere and sets American politics on its head.
What’s going on here?
There are multiple and different reasons for these explosions, but to the extent they might have a common denominator I think it can be found in one of the slogans of Israel’s middle-class uprising: “We are fighting for an accessible future.” Across the world, a lot of middle- and lower-middle-class people now feel that the “future” is out of their grasp, and they are letting their leaders know it.
Why now? It starts with the fact that globalization and the information technology revolution have gone to a whole new level. Thanks to cloud computing, robotics, 3G wireless connectivity, Skype, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, the iPad, and cheap Internet-enabled smartphones, the world has gone from connected to hyper-connected.
This is the single most important trend in the world today. And it is a critical reason why, to get into the middle class now, you have to study harder, work smarter and adapt quicker than ever before. All this technology and globalization are eliminating more and more “routine” work — the sort of work that once sustained a lot of middle-class lifestyles.
The merger of globalization and I.T. is driving huge productivity gains, especially in recessionary times, where employers are finding it easier, cheaper and more necessary than ever to replace labor with machines, computers, robots and talented foreign workers. It used to be that only cheap foreign manual labor was easily available; now cheap foreign genius is easily available. This explains why corporations are getting richer and middle-skilled workers poorer. Good jobs do exist, but they require more education or technical skills. Unemployment today still remains relatively low for people with college degrees. But to get one of those degrees and to leverage it for a good job requires everyone to raise their game. It’s hard.
Think of what The Times reported last February: At little Grinnell College in rural Iowa, with 1,600 students, “nearly one of every 10 applicants being considered for the class of 2015 is from China.” The article noted that dozens of other American colleges and universities are seeing a similar surge as well. And the article added this fact: Half the “applicants from China this year have perfect scores of 800 on the math portion of the SAT.”
Not only does it take more skill to get a good job, but for those who are unable to raise their games, governments no longer can afford generous welfare support or cheap credit to be used to buy a home for nothing down — which created a lot of manual labor in construction and retail. Alas, for the 50 years after World War II, to be a president, mayor, governor or university president meant, more often than not, giving things away to people. Today, it means taking things away from people.
All of this is happening at a time when this same globalization/I.T. revolution enables the globalization of anger, with all of these demonstrations now inspiring each other. Some Israeli protestors carried a sign: “Walk Like an Egyptian.” While these social protests — and their flash-mob, criminal mutations like those in London — are not caused by new technologies per se, they are fueled by them.
This globalization/I.T. revolution is also “super-empowering” individuals, enabling them to challenge hierarchies and traditional authority figures — from business to science to government. It is also enabling the creation of powerful minorities and making governing harder and minority rule easier than ever. See dictionary for: “Tea Party.”
Surely one of the iconic images of this time is the picture of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak — for three decades a modern pharaoh — being hauled into court, held in a cage with his two sons and tried for attempting to crush his people’s peaceful demonstrations. Every leader and C.E.O. should reflect on that photo. “The power pyramid is being turned upside down,” said Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political theorist.
So let’s review: We are increasingly taking easy credit, routine work and government jobs and entitlements away from the middle class — at a time when it takes more skill to get and hold a decent job, at a time when citizens have more access to media to organize, protest and challenge authority and at a time when this same merger of globalization and I.T. is creating huge wages for people with global skills (or for those who learn to game the system and get access to money, monopolies or government contracts by being close to those in power) — thus widening income gaps and fueling resentments even more.
Put it all together and you have today’s front-page news.