What Will Endure from 2016?

A few weeks ago in New York I was interviewed for a History Channel documentary called This is History: 2016.  The show is based on a new Pew Research Center poll that asked four different American generations--from Millennials through the Greatest Generation--to name the 10 most significant historical events of their lifetimes.  

For starters, the differences between generations clearly reflected their ages: for Boomers and the Greatest Generation, civil rights, the JFK assassination and Vietnam figured large.  Gen X and the Millennials, on the other hand, named school shootings like Columbine and Sandy Hook, or terrorist attacks such as Orlando and the Boston Marathon.  

Interestingly, each generation also had its own unique historical recollection not shared with any other generation: the Korean War for the Greatest Generation, Martin Luther King’s assassination for Boomers, the Challenger disaster for Gen X, and the Great Recession for Millennials.

In the end, however, all generations agreed on five key events: JFK’s assassination, September 11, Obama’s election, the Iraq/Afghanistan wars--and the tech revolution.

That last choice is noteworthy, considering that “the tech revolution” is neither a heart-stopping historical moment, nor an intensely emotional national experience.   No one ever asks “Where were you when you heard about the tech revolution?”  Yet technologic change has a place in the national memory that ranks with major social movements and tragic assassinations.

That’s what I talked about in the History Channel interview.  It’s obvious that 2016 will be remembered historically for the rise of nationalistic populism, as evidenced by the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory.  And there are, of course, lots of explanations for surging populism, ranging from anxiety over immigration to globalism and middle class malaise.

Yet I think that underlying this political upheaval is another chapter in the tech revolution: the oncoming ability of machines and software to replace human labor--from fast food workers and truck drivers to young lawyers and accountants.  This chapter is still on its first pages, but already a broad segment of the population feels the economic earth moving beneath their feet: a vague sense that the fundamentals of labor and employment are changing, and not in a good way for human beings. 

Of course that’s far too nebulous a threat to win a political campaign, so politicians turn to easier targets like illegal immigrants and overseas factories.   But I think history will ultimately remember the populist uprising of 2016 as a distant early warning signal of a much larger economic crisis to come.  And that crisis will, for yet another generation, be among their ten most significant events.