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Working outside the tech bubble

Steve Blank, lecturer, Haas School of Business | August 21, 2017

Annual note to self – most of the world exists outside the tech bubble.
We have a summer home in New England in a semi-rural area, just ~10,000 people in town, with a potato farm across the street. Drive down the road and you can see the tall stalks of corn waving on other farms. Most people aren’t in tech or law or teaching in universities; they fall solidly in what is called working-class.

They work as electricians, carpenters, plumbers, in hospitals, restaurants, as clerks, office managers, farmers, etc. They have solid middle-class values of work, family, education and country – work hard, own a home, have a secure job and save for their kids’ college and their retirement.

small town vermontThis summer I was sitting in the Delekta Pharmacy in the nearby town of Warren having a Coffee Cabinet (a coffee milkshake). It’s one of the last drugstores with a real soda fountain. The summer tourists mostly come through on the weekend but during the week the locals come by to gab with the guy behind the counter. There are four small wooden booths along the wall in front of the fountain, and as I drank my Cabinet I got to overhear townie conversations from the other three booths.

Unlike every cafe I sit in the valley or San Francisco, their conversations were not about tech.

While they own tech, smartphones and computers, most can’t tell you who the ex-CEO of Uber is, or the details of the diversity blowup at Google. More important issues dominate their daily lives.

I was listening to one guy talk about how much his mortgage and kid’s college expenses were increasing while he hadn’t gotten a raise in three years and was worried about paying the bills. A woman talked about her husband, and how after 21 years as an electrician in the local hospital, he had just been laid off. Others chimed in with their stories, best summarized by a feeling of economic anxiety. Of being squeezed with no real exit.

It was a long time ago, but I knew the feeling well.

I grew up in New York in a single-parent household that teetered on the bottom end of what today we’d call working class. My parents were immigrants and when they were divorced my mother supported us on the $125 a week she made as a bookkeeper. The bills got paid, and we had food in the house, but there was nothing extra left. No vacations. New clothes were bought once a year before school.

Years later when I got out of the Air Force, I installed broadband process control systems in automobile assembly plants and steel mills across the industrial heart of the Midwest. I got to see the peak of America’s manufacturing prowess in the 1970s, when we actually made things – before we shipped the factories and jobs overseas. I hung out with the guys who worked there, went bowling and shooting with them, complained about the same things, wives, girlfriends, jobs and bosses, and shared their same concerns.

Listening to these conversations in the Pharmacy, and the other stories I have heard as I explored the small towns here, reminded me that people I grew up with, served with and others I worked with, still live in this world. In fact, more than half of Americans fall into the working class. And the conversations I was listening to were a real-life narrative of the “middle-class squeeze.” While the economy has continued to grow, in the name of corporate efficiency and profitability we’ve closed the shipyards and factories and moved those jobs overseas. The bulk of those gains have ended up in the pockets of the very affluent. Income inequality stares you in the face here. The level of despair is high. The small city next to us has been hard hit in the opioid crisis: 63 people died last year.

My annual trek out here reminds me that that I live in a Silicon Valley bubble—and that a good part of the country is not reading what we read, caring about what we care about or thinking about what we think about. They have a lot more immediate concerns.

It’s good to spend time outside the bubble – but I get to go back. My neighbors here, people in that pharmacy and the many others like them can’t. In the U.S. people used to move to where the jobs are. But today, Americans are less mobile. Some are rooted, embedded in their communities; and some are trapped — because housing is unaffordable where the better-paying jobs are. And the jobs that are high paying are not the jobs they built their lives on. Likely their circumstances won’t have changed much by the time I return next year.

I don’t know how the people I listened to and talked to voted, but it’s easy to see why they might feel as if no one in Washington is living their lives. And that the tech world is just as distant as Hollywood or Wall Street.

There isn’t an app to fix this.

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Comments to “Working outside the tech bubble

  1. “And that the tech world is just as distant as Hollywood or Wall Street.

    There isn’t an app to fix this.”

    Very good points

  2. Anthony St. John, I like your closing statement and I commend Steve Blanks for publishing this article that creates dialog and awareness of the “middle-class squeeze” despite our growing economy the benefactors are corporations and the affluent that seem to have the working class in mind, but give them the chance to improve there bottom line they shutter factories and plants and ship jobs out overseas. Some say tax incentive is a partial answer to keeping jobs and operations here. Whatever the dynamic is I believe educators, economist and lawmakers can come up with some more effective solutions, but it starts with dialog, awareness and Identifying the problems to have a serious discussion on how to curve income inequality. The country does better when the wealth spread amongst everyone. Thier are lawmakers like Mr. Sanders who take on topics like this pushing awareness on Income inequalities and challenging other to engage in a serious debate on solutions. Anthony, I’m like you I’d like to see a solution come about before time runs out to out of control global warming, worldwide violence, and inequalities. I’d like to thank you and Mr. Steve Blank for a recap of an enlighten dialog. I have to look for some related online communities to share this article and dialog.

    • Nelson, thank you for your comments and support.

      Considering the rapidly increasing, most destructive, worldwide climate changes we are experiencing today, we must produce and implement long-term solutions immediately if our newest and future generations are going to have an acceptable quality of life.

      It is therefore most imperative for academics around the world to join together to teach the human race to end the “Us” vs “Them” dichotomies that are threatening the human race and produce “We” cooperation like we did to win WWII.

      There is a paper produced by the CALIFORNIA alumni association and Berkeley School of Journalism that describes a most destructive failure mode of the human race that must be overcome today:

      “Can We Adapt in Time?”

      • Hey Anthony,

        I tend to believe like the author mention that some people don’t have the foresight to fix problems until there becomes a clear immediate danger which is sad, but my hopes are that people become enlighten through educators and world events that make them realize what’s the cost of ignorance on global warming – climate matters. We should be investing in science and research to help advance the development of better alternative fuel energy sources. I look forward to seeing people waking up to climate matters and pressuring the representatives to act, with historical evidence of how civilization fail before us for not acting…

    • Automation is another “middle-class job squeezer” technology is displacing jobs some examples – EZ Pass automated toll payments, self-checkout at your retail store, supermarket and pharmacy or virtual bank tellers handling our bank needs. People are going to have to adapt and learn new skills to fit in with the new technological advances being adapted in big business operations.

  3. I don’t know how the people I listened to and talked to voted, but it’s easy to see why they might feel as if no one in Washington is living their lives. And that the tech world is just as distant as Hollywood or Wall Street.

  4. It’s normal for mass people.Because they have to think about the maintenance of their family.It’s very tough for a normal job holder guy to maintain their family,that’s why it’s natural that their discussions are always about their livelihood..
    Thanks for the post Steve..
    Have a nice day..

  5. Yes, “There isn’t an app to fix this.”

    For over a decade I have studied solutions to our problems such as those documented in John Brockman’s 2007 Edge Annual Question “WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?” by 160 “high-powered scientific thinkers.”

    In spite of all the world class wisdom in the Edge publication, Trump’s presidency has now proven that we are not making any progress to protect the future of the human race even though we have produced “ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques“ since the book was published in 2007.

    Do you scholars at Berkeley have better solutions we can implement before time runs out due to out of control global warming, worldwide violence and inequalities?

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