There are two strikingly different ways of looking at prospects for American workers.
One view, often heard from business organizations, is that the looming retirement of the huge baby-boom generation will create a great labor shortage. So don't worry about recent distressing trends in wages and benefits; the market will cure that. Worry about where America is going to get the workers, particularly skilled workers, needed to keep the U.S. economy humming.
The counter view is that the emergence of China, India and the former Soviet bloc as modern capitalist economies changes everything. It adds about 1.5 billion workers to the roughly 1.5 billion workers already competing in the global economy and tilts the global balance between labor and capital in favor of capital. So worry -- and worry particularly that China and India are interested not only in low-skilled, low-wage jobs, but are training platoons of scientists, engineers and researchers.
Harvard University labor economist Richard Freeman examines the facts underlying these contrasting stories in a paper to be discussed today at a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston conference. His conclusion, to skip ahead a bit, is that the second case is stronger.
It is a well written column, and the conclusion that surplus will likely outweigh shortage is more unfortunate for future workers in the United States than even this discussion suggests.
It is true that the consumption needs of a large retired population (approaching half the size of the working population) will tend to boost wages under the "shortage" view presented above. But it will boost them not just in the United States. Wages will rise around the globe, in proportion to the ability of those in overseas markets to actually deliver the goods and services. (So wages for barbers go up proportionately more than for computer programmers.) Retirees will be bribing younger cohorts around the world to give up more leisure to provide the products they desire.
But among those younger cohorts who do take the bribe, there will be an added dimension in the United States but not in those other countries that Freeman and Wessel are considering. The added dimension is the substantially higher income tax burden that they will face to pay for the entitlements of the older generations. Entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare are funded by taxes on payroll and income. The same is largely true of our addiction to budget deficits in the General Fund. To a very large extent, the ones who pay those taxes are the ones who work. So why work, or at the very least, why work in the United States?