Here’s One Reason So Many Middle Class Workers Are Being Left Behind

An ice sculpture reading "middle class" slowly melts away

An ice sculpture reading “middle class” slowly melts away | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The American middle class is hollowing out, and a huge number of people are feeling left behind. If there’s one thing to take from the election of Donald Trump, it’s that. The economy may be booming in certain big, coastal cities, but in great swaths of the country, the symptoms of recession remain. Jobs have gone, never to come back. Those with the means to pick up and leave have done so.

Though the middle class has seen some modest gains in terms of pay during the Obama years, people are still hurting. When you put all the pieces together, it’s easy to see why so many people feel left behind.

Explaining how and why that happened isn’t exactly easy. You can blame globalization, which has most certainly been a large part of it. But so has the incredible leaps in technological innovation we’ve seen over the past two or three decades. Many jobs that used to require American hands-on labor can now be done in other countries for a fraction of the price, or fully automated with robots and computers.

But this isn’t anything new. When old jobs become redundant, people flock to new career paths or jobs to replace them. The horse and buggy gave way to the automobile, for example, and the auto industry was an economic boon for millions of American workers for decades.

Similar things are happening now. Factory jobs are disappearing, but people aren’t migrating to new industries. One reason? The digital divide.

The middle class and the digital divide

A middle class woman passes by Trump sign as she packs up her car in rural Pennsylvania

A middle-class woman passes by Trump sign as she packs up her car in rural Pennsylvania | Mark Makela/Getty Images

The “digital divide” refers to the (largely generational) gap between those who have access to and the ability to operate computers and technology. These days, there’s really no avoiding technology. For most Americans, access to the internet via a computer or smartphone is a necessity.

But in terms of jobs, that digital divide goes beyond knowing how to operate an iPhone. Today’s high-paying and in-demand jobs require technical skills. Or at least some level of technological competence. And unfortunately, a huge number of American workers lack that competence — one of the core reasons so many people are feeling “left behind.”

In other words, the economy is changing, but workers aren’t keeping pace. Some can’t, and some won’t. Data from Pew Research Center proves it.

According to Pew’s September 2016 report Digital Readiness Gaps, more than half (52%) of American adults are “relatively hesitant” about computers and technology. Among the 52% are three distinct groups and the common traits among them is that they have a low level of trust and knowledge when it comes to digital information and skills.

The people most likely to be found among this group? Lower income folks over the age of 50, with low levels of education. Or, the people who are feeling left behind.

Skills for the future?

Azerty keyboard of a laptop computer

Laptop computer | Loic Venance/Getty Images

Among the 48% who are “relatively more prepared”? They’re younger, in their 30s and 40s, and are more educated. This translates to higher earnings. That’s not to say that these people are tech geniuses, but they know enough to find trustworthy information on the internet and use online tools to learn and prepare themselves for the future.

When you take it all into consideration, it appears that the digital divide, or “digital readiness,” as Pew calls it, plays a big role for the haves and have-nots in the new economy.

Here’s Pew’s breakdown:


Obviously, there are a lot of other variables at play here, too. Globalization is the biggest reason that most of the good, well-paying jobs of years past have been moved to other countries. But even those won’t be around for long — automation and robotization of the workforce will soon cleave millions more jobs from economies around the world.

The idea is that since we can automate these jobs, people should be spending their time and using their skills for other things. The main issue is that those “other things,” especially in the modern American economy, require some degree of technical prowess. Prowess which, evidently, half of American adults lack.

It’s unrealistic to expect millions of older, detached workers to learn to code, become engineers, or manage social media networks. And that’s something policymakers and business leaders are going to struggle with for years to come. But if we’re looking for reasons as to why so many people are being left behind? The digital divide seems to contain some answers.

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