Friday 9 December 2016

Angry White Old Men

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, British weavers tried to smash the machines in newly built textile factories. These so-called Luddites felt that mechanization of production threatened their livelihood and their traditional way of life. When a machine threatens to replace the man, the man breaks the machine.

These days, we see something similar. The threat comes not from machines, but from new modern technologies and globalization: ICT and the sharing economy, coupled with free trade and ever greater migration flows. Those who feel threatened today are predominantly white, old and male. The threat that they face is that their jobs get shipped off to China or Eastern Europe or that they get replaced by an immigrant or a smartphone app.

The angry white old men don’t break things. Instead, they attend rallies against immigrants and vote for politicians who promise to make their countries great again.

They are mainly men. Low-skilled men work in sectors that are particularly threatened by free trade, immigration and automation: manufacturing, construction and agriculture. Low-skilled women, in contrast, tend to prefer service and public-sector jobs, in which employment prospects are safer. In fact, they may even benefit: an immigrant who comes to Europe to work on a construction site will need to buy bread and milk in the local shop and get haircut from a local hairdresser.

They are mainly white: previously they were the dominant and privileged group and now they increasingly see themselves becoming the underclass, outflanked by the more successful minorities.

And they are old, as older workers are more likely to possess skills that are of little use in today’s modern economy. The young have invested in education, which gives them a competitive edge over the less-skilled immigrants and overseas workers, and they are sufficiently tech savvy to participate in and benefit from the spread of new technologies.

Take taxi drivers as an example. The typical London cabbie is a white male in his 50s, drives an ancient looking black cab, does not possess much formal education but has acquired the Knowledge (familiarity with London’s streets and alleys), and is usually grumpy. If you use your smartphone to hail an Uber, you’ll probably get a cheerful young guy from Romania or the Middle East who will rely on GPS to get you to your destination. In a Toyota Prius.

In the past, such men would work all their life, retire on a defined-benefit pension in their early to mid 60s, and then die shortly thereafter due to ailments brought about by a lifetime of hard work and overindulging in smoking, drinking and fatty food. Not anymore. With their jobs off-shored or taken up by immigrants, they face long old age on benefits, then on modest defined-contribution pension. And one can’t even smoke in pubs anymore.

At the same time, the young are too busy doing well to have kids. And this is why the angry white old men are becoming more influential. In the past, their gripes would be outweighed by the more numerous young. Not anymore. We are moving closer to the point where the median voter will be an angry white old man. When that happens, expect more nasty electoral surprises to happen. Pegida, Brexit and Trump represent just the dawn of the new political paradigm.

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