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The 2012 presidential election can be seen as offering a choice between two visions of how to return us to this country’s golden age — from roughly 1945 to around 1973 — when working life was most secure for many Americans, particularly white, middle-class men. President Obama said his jobs plan was for people who believed “if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be rewarded.” Mitt Romney explained his goal was to restore hope for “folks who grew up believing that if they played by the rules . . . they would have the chance to build a good life.” But these days, many workers have lost a near guarantee on a decent wage and benefits — and their careers are likely to have much more volatility (great years; bad years; confusing, mediocre years) than their parents’ ever did. So when did the rules change?
It has been hard to keep track. Over the past four decades, we have experienced the oil embargo, Carter-era malaise and a few recessions. Mixed in were the thrills of the late 1990s and mid-aughts, when it seemed as if you were a sap if you weren’t getting rich or at least trying. But these dramas prevented many of us from realizing that the economic logic was changing fundamentally. Starting in the 1970s, labor was upended by a lot more than just formal government work rules. Increased global trade devastated workers in many industries, especially textiles, apparel, toys, furniture and electronics assembly. Computers and other technological innovations had an arguably greater impact. While factories continue to make more stuff in the United States than ever before, employment in them has collapsed.
Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in “Mad Men,” and think about the abundance of people who...