Does Tech Exacerbate the Myth of Social Mobility?

Aisling Carlson
Chief Business Officer
July 16, 2021
“Your intellect, your work ethic, your character have very little to do with the wealth you accumulate over the course of your life.” — John Egan

This month, Sieo partnered with our friends at Faura to co-host a lively interactive salon with John Egan, CEO of L’Atelier, a foresight company that explores the impact of tech on society and identifies future market opportunities and challenges through research, analysis, and exploratory fiction. Let’s just say that the conversation was spirited — with all the questions and comments from attendees, we could have gone on for another two or three hours, at least. Here, we’ll distill some of John’s biggest takeaways on the myth of social class mobility, and round things out with some soapboxing of our own. (We can’t help it.)

The Myth of Equitable Economics

Part of the mythology of the U.S. and many other capitalist democracies is the promise that its citizens have social class mobility. Get an education. Work hard. Obey the rules. As if by following the steps in an instruction manual to bootstrapping, you might slowly ascend the socioeconomic ranks (no matter who or where you were when you started) until you’re the poster person of the rags-to-riches arc — or so this ethos proclaims.

The numbers speak a different and deeply fraught truth: that the chasm between social classes is widening precipitously, that minorities are disproportionately prevented from attaining the upper reaches of the wealth ladder, that for millions of Americans there is a level of financial disillusionment that has all but made a joke out of the American Dream. Look at these stats:

  • In the same period, GDP has grown by 120% and corporate profits have grown by 54% while employee income has decreased by 8.5% (with the cost of education, childcare, etc., skyrocketing).
  • The average wage in Los Angeles, New York, and London has grown by 54% in the last 20 years, but house prices have gone up by 544%.

You’re right if you’re thinking: W.T.F. Again, as John Egan said: intellect + work ethic + character ≠ accumulated wealth over time.

The Role Tech Plays in Stratifying Social Classes

So where does tech come into play? The renowned futurist Azeem Azhar has elsewhere noted that technology is growing as an exponential rate — and that it’s shaping our reality in ways that have outpaced our ability to keep up. And research indicates that disparities in access to tech (the digital divide), in addition to the ways in which tech is displacing and transforming the job market, is inextricably linked to socioeconomic disparities.

A recent overview by Pew shows that even though Americans with lower incomes are becoming more reliant on smartphones (even for tasks that are usually saved for larger screens, like job applications), the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the harsh reality of the underlying gap: 59% of parents with lower incomes reported in April 2020 that their children in remote classes were likely to face digital obstacles to their education, including lack of reliable internet access, no computer at home, or having to complete homework on their smartphones.

Other examples of how this plays into social stratification? The MTA in New York City recently announced that it will permanently ban cash transactions at subway booths, sparking concern that the move would affect the 350,000+ citizens who don’t have a bank account and would have to deal with chronically out-of-service MetroCard machines or struggle to use them, if they are seniors and/or visually impaired. (It’s long been argued that cashless societies can significantly hurt the poor.) Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are also being hailed as a way to end income inequality and the shrinking middle class myth. (Even Spike Lee did an ad for a crypto ATM, weird as it may seem.)

crowd of passersby gathering in time square
Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The digital revolution isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and many would argue that adopting (as well as adapting to) technological advancements is the way toward an “ambidextrous” society. Still, it’s clear that there are complex intersections at play — between race and class, especially — that make tech a wedge in intergenerational social mobility for millions of people. Policy cooperation, modernizing hyperscale infrastructure, and creating “smart cities” are all ways theorists have suggested we bridge the digital divide — but, like any problem that is evolving even as it continues to change the way we live our day-to-day lives, it can be hard to say what the best course of action even is.

Interested in learning more about the social mobility myth? Give the full conversation with John Egan a listen.

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