Amid talk of economic recovery, we may not get back to living the life we had in the past
Being downgrading can be tough – no one likes having to get by with less – but this is what we might have to put up with regard to the economy. Life was much easier around a decade ago when we were enjoying the perks of strong and steady economic growth. But the upgrade was likely temporary when considering that it was funded with a borrowing binge that was unsustainable. With wages likely to continue to stagnate for years to come, we may not have it so good again for a long time.
Anything but first class
Gains in wages are typically the main route to the good life for most of us. Bigger pay packets at the each of the month give us more money to spend. This money goes back into the economy to create a virtuous cycle helping create a healthy economy so that wages to rise again in the future. The main avenue through which wages rise is higher output per worker. This involves people being put to more productive use whether through raising their levels of skills, working together with machines or computers, or doing business in a better way. The economy usually operates to ensure that this happens automatically as businesses, which want to maximized their profits, will try and make the most of their staff.
Yet, the past few years, if not the past few decades, have shown us that the tendency for higher wages is not something that we can take for granted. This is because the two forces of globalization and technology have made life tougher for many people in richer countries. The sectors of the economy which typically supported the middle class with stable and steady jobs have been eroded. Jobs such as those in manufacturing along with clerical work have been either moved to countries where labour is cheap or increasingly carried out by machines or computers.
This has led to a polarization of the work force between high and low skilled areas with a shrinking middle ground. At one end of the spectrum are bankers, IT experts, and professionals whose knowledge and training ensure a high level of pay. The rest of the workforce is left with menial jobs such as taxi drivers, shop assistants, and delivery personal only because these are jobs that can’t be shipped overseas. On top of this, austerity measures in many countries also mean that public sector workers are also suffering.
No route out
With many of us now competing with machines or overseas workers, our bargaining has been considerably diminished. So while wages rises is a perk that many are missing out on, profits for many businesses have never been higher. Profitable firms could be the agents of economic growth by expanding their operations and investing in more equipment. Yet, with weak wages crimping consumer spending, most companies prefer to hoard their cash until the economic recovery is more robust. What seems like a common sense strategy for each firm has added up to a prolonged slump for the economy as a whole.
The government could step into the breach and provide the investment in worker training or infrastructure to boost productivity. Yet, the infiltration of pro-market economic theory has pushed the government to the sidelines of the economy. Even the wealth that had been created in the boom years before the crisis was only benefiting a small portion of the economy. One example is the finance sector that was creating wealth that mostly went to those working in finance rather to the economy as a whole. Building a road or new schools creates benefits now and in the future while repackaging of loans only generates money for a lucky few working in banking.
Stuck with a second class economy
Workers have been battling with the consequences of globalization and technology for decades but could rely on debt in the past to enjoy some of the high life. But like an ever expanding credit card balance, this spending spree was never built to last. To make things worse, even politicians got involved. The US government with Bush junior in charge slashed tax rates while the Labour government spent lavishly on the UK public sector around the turn of the century.
Government finances had been boosted by economic growth fuelled by debt but this was a luxury that would prove fleeting. Now government is like the rest of us in having to cut back. Without many goodies going around, voters are likely to become increasing tetchy. Politics is also getting ugly with constructive policy making likely to go out the window. Low interest rates and more debt have been offered up as a way out but this creates even more problems in the absence of economic growth.
Something special will be needed to get both consumers and businesses to hope for something better. Yet, the grim realities of life mean that this may not happen anything soon. Like being in a long haul flight in economy class, we might be stuck here for a while.