America is known around the world as the land of opportunity. For decades, even centuries, people have flocked to our cities and towns seeking opportunity, eager to use their talent and experience to achieve dreams unfettered by the constraints of class and gender. Though the reality of unlimited opportunity never equaled the rhetoric, it was near enough to enable many, many millions to succeed.
The past century has witnessed many decades when growing prosperity and greater equality were joined. As the nation's economy grew, both rich and poor gained, with those at the bottom often benefiting most. When World War II dragged the nation out of the Great Depression, for example, unskilled workers' earnings grew fastest. After the war ended, rich and poor gained equally for twenty-five years. So, when John F. Kennedy spoke of a rising tide lifting all boats he was accurately reflecting the experience of his generation.
Since the 1970s, the nation's economy has grown, but earnings have become far less equal. It is well known that the economic rewards for success in the United States are remarkable and growing larger by the year. It is equally well documented that the economic gap between the rich and poor is widening.
The size of available economic rewards and the extent to which they are open to all members of a society are critical factors in assessing whether that society's economic and social structure is perceived to be fair. The importance of these factors is even greater in the United States given our deep investment in the idea that we're a nation that promises equal opportunity for all.
Recent research indicates that there is much less upward mobility in the United States than in many developed countries including France, Germany, Canada, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. And, perhaps for the first time in our history, American men earn less than their fathers. Consequently, while disparity in economic rewards is growing, there has been no positive change in the accessibility of those rewards to everyone in our society.
America faces a looming shortage of skilled workers, which has the potential to dampen economic growth and exacerbate inequality. A well-publicized report from the Aspen Institute notes that over the next generation the number of native-born workers ages 25-54 will stay stable - unlike the past two decades when total growth was 44 percent. This results from the combination of the retirement of the baby boom and a plateauing of women entering the labor force. Moreover, the share of workers with education beyond high-school will grow just four percent by 2023, compared with the 19-percent growth of educated workers in the past two decades.
How will employers find workers? Immigrants, seniors and minorities, particularly those that have not been part of the labor force, will become much more important sources. While finding workers will be a challenge, the availability of skilled workers will be particularly vexing. Employers are already aware that not only is it hard to find people with appropriate skills, many of those they already have on board have serious skill deficits.
In sum, a few points are critical:
Fortunately, the United States continues to be a hotbed of social program development, with new efforts launched every day. In order for these policies and programs to make a meaningful difference in people's lives, a disciplined approach to evaluating and spreading the most effective strategies is essential.