As we move toward a self-regulating economy, the new classifications of income, wealth and income inequality raise fascinating questions. Should the government and the media change how they define Americans and their economic status?
Should we rank people according to their income and wealth? Or should we treat them as individuals — depending upon where they live, their access to education, their approach to work and the quality of their lives? There are those who would like to move toward a Google-driven economy in which everyone depends solely on Google — they’d want every new citizen to study a specific computer language that enables everyone to “Google” themselves — and technology planners, funded by the government, have pushed to do this.
Another proposed system suggests that we should designate people according to how much education they have received. And another suggests that we assign a person a value to their time, based on how productive they are for the benefit of those around them. One study of educational attainment in Britain suggests that the wealthier you are, the more time you use, since you are more productive. Those who work less benefit more.
Each of these definitions would be morally problematic.
But consider another series of classes, not just class A and B. Do all people need to have a degree? What about a high-school diploma? Those who don’t complete their education would be considered below-average achievers — no different from someone who dropped out of high school in Mississippi and went back to work in Hoke County, where he lived with his family. So do we use certain social and cognitive factors in evaluating our colleagues, roommates, neighbors and politicians, even those who are above average?
And even if we define things a little differently, can we still classify all people and groups by income or wealth? Should people from many different backgrounds and ages live together in the same apartment complex?
In trying to answer such questions, it is helpful to think about what motivates us — and ourselves.
We define ourselves by the bread we earn, the houses we buy and the clothes we wear. These are powerful motivators for personal identity. That’s why when I get mad at Trump or heckled by a kid at a Boy Scout gathering, I walk out into the street. I resent his behavior because that type of money drives me to find something more meaningful.
This defines who I am — what I am focused on — not the fact that I have wealth or have gone to college. After all, at some point college educated individuals across all age ranges stopped thinking in terms of what their parents did with their education and started thinking in terms of what my son does with his college education.
That’s why researchers have concluded that genes and socioeconomic status don’t predict where you end up on the economic ladder. And that’s why it’s telling that as more men drop out of the labor force, America is still more about marriage and raising families than it is about career.
Most people define themselves by their work, even though it’s a mix of jobs that do well in the economy and jobs that don’t. It’s who they are. Some of the best known workplace associations, like the federal government’s GS-15-17 Advisory Committee, which meets under the aegis of the General Services Administration, and the firms that host such meetings, have focused on the plight of minorities and women.
But at some point in the 1980s, they could see that most people — including the largest membership in their ranks — are working for companies, not government agencies.
That is why at conferences like this one, hosted by the Government Business Council, it’s important to have other themes — like how employers are evolving to be more flexible or to better serve refugees — that support diversity.
A 21st-century economy should focus on the personal value we place on work. For so many of us, work is like a hobby — a means to meet our basic needs. But since the rewards of our work are almost immediate, they’re addictive. So perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that some people are constantly thinking about their future in work and find themselves falling asleep in their jobs.
Our new classifications of income, wealth and income inequality also will raise questions about groups that have historically been designated as “low income” in the United States, such as households in rural or poor-performing neighborhoods. These groups have struggled to join the middle class and may not be all that different from that of people who never graduate from high school, remain stuck in jobs that are bad fits for them or simply never thought of themselves as low income.
We’re learning all