Working Outside the Tech Bubble

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.

This 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.

49 Responses

  1. Wonderfully written and with great empathy

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nice message. Forced me to think. Thank you.

    Keith Bates

    http://www.kbates.com

    keithbates@kbates.com

    Like

  3. That’s like so many who eulogise the simpler life, after a few weeks: “they get to go home again” 🙂

    Like

  4. I’ve enjoyed your blog for a while now. This piece really speaks to the sentiments of many Americans. Well written. Thank you.

    Like

  5. Thank you Steve for this post. It is a sad state of affairs that some of us who are able to unhitch ourselves from the world and ride along in our tech bubble choose to do so. We should try to make this journey into the world on a daily basis. This likely will get us out of our comfort zone, and we’ll bump up against people that don’t look like us or sound like us or smell like us. But, it will make our tech better and maybe make us better in the process.

    John

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  6. Hello Steve:

    Great article, points and very well written. I agree completely. We can do something to turn this around. The solution might start with pointing out that the ignorance is at the top, not at the bottom. And not politicians, it’s the thought leaders, maybe Greenspan, and others. They said there would be great benefits to unequal trade and ignored the terrible costs. There is a terrible cost to 5 or 10 million households living in despair. A point we can make I think is that we strongly support trade, but trade is trade, it is not selling to the US and not buying anything in return. We can have a 3 to 5 year readjustment period and then have crushing penalties for any of the top 20 economies that don’t trade evenly with us. We are still strongly supporting trade, and if they don’t like it they can trade elsewhere. Costs, some, benefits, overwhelming.

    Thanks,

    George Willison

    President

    Wyman Fitness, Inc.

    Cumming, GA

    678-938-4230

    Like

  7. Wow. Really poignant reminder about how most people live. I live in a tech bubble in Lagos, Nigeria where the income disparity between rich and poor is even more pronounced. I guess life is like Monopoly: in the end someone ends up with all the money. Just how do you start a new game after that?

    Like

  8. Excellent read, thanks! I recently moved from Los Altos to South Kingstown, RI, to build a new home (and to some extent a new life). I’m very fortunate to have the resources to live comfortably in this beautiful place, without the anxiety many of my neighbors feel about surviving in an uncertain economic environment.

    Like

  9. Great story. More like this please.

    Can you suggest some kinds of entrepreneurship for people in these squeezed situations?

    Eva.

    Like

  10. Great article. This senario is common in many towns accross America.
    What are solutions to addressing these problems for the folks in these communities. Is the solution launching infrastructure projects, or bringing back coal or manufacturing jobs?

    Welcome your insights!

    Like

  11. Steve, most of us non Billionaires pointed this out to you during 2016 elections..when are you going to listen to non billionaires? It could be as late as when we progressives decide to take your tax breaks away from you..:)

    Like

  12. Unfortunately the presidential political shakeup that many in middle America voted for has made these economy disparities even more pronounced and without resolution. Equitable Solutions to some of these middle America problems may exist but will require the same level of aggressive action that currently exists in our entrepreneurial centers of tech innovation. Maybe our political leaders could enlist some of the methodologies of the lean startup to develop and test viable solutions to these problems? How about it Mr. Blank?

    Like

  13. thanks for the “Realville” post.

    Like

  14. Let’s try an App to fix this Steve

    Like

  15. If you have a salary that you rely on, you are working class. The middle class are working class. The upper middle class are working class. Even in tech most are working class. The distinction isn’t whether you are poor or not, but whether you need to rent yourself to survive. We in the tech bubble often forget that.

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    • You’re right. Funny how most tech answers still show how techies see their world as somehow separate for the fate of those who have lost working class jobs before them. I guess this will last until the robots replace the coders, and then the tech lay-offs will be wide and pronounced. If you don’t believe this, see the OpenAI surprise this week.

      Like

  16. Great reflections ….

    Like

  17. I believe the San Francisco Bay Area (where I also live) has many tiny “tech bubbles”, like a carbonated drink, but in my thirty years of experience living here, I’m more likely to hear conversations such as your Pharmacy experience, 99% of the time, wherever I go. I know about Steven Jurvetson, but have I as much as seen him in person? No. Never discussed “Kleiner Perkins, ” with anyone, nothing about “Unicorns”, startups, etc. So, to me, the SF Area is the liquid, the drink. To feel the effects of carbonation, “the bubbles”, you have to seek that out, know how to get to Sand Hill Road (I do not) and know what’s on Sand Hill Road. I have been to Jason Calacanis events, and I was shocked by the “effervescence”, the number of tech/startup people because I never feel the “startup energy” here in SF/Bay Area.

    Back in the 1920s, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce published advertisements in Midwest newspapers, advising people ” DO NOT come to Hollywood, ” etc., because so many young adults thought, “All I need to do is, show up, and I’ll be in the movies.” The same attitude brings young people out here, because they read about ten, twenty, thirty people who were successful, because they came to “Silicon Valley” (hint: do not go to “Silicon Valley Blvd”.)

    No one reads about the hundreds, thousands, who came and left.

    Like

  18. I appreciate the sentiment. I work in tech in Pennsylvania. I’m constantly faced with the differences in lifestyle and expectations of myself and my coworkers versus most of my friends or members of my community. I’d love to hear more ideas for how to bridge that gap.

    Like

  19. Wow. Certainly a different kind of post from you, Steve, and given the number of quickly submitted comments, maybe more of this ilk would be good. The curious aspect to this story is many of the same issues occur in the center of the bubble. We, more blue collar than any other color, reside on the first hill south of downtown San Francisco. Both currently unemployed but lucky/smart enough to have purchased a small apartment building decades ago when our area was all blue collar. Now having endured the gentrification ride/ price escalation ride we are cashing out and heading to the hills. Much of our proceeds will be used in a lean startup fashion to improve the local situation where we end up. Looking forward.

    Like

  20. Perhaps now is the time for innovation, can we fix Washington with an APP. Instantaneous response from public feedback might be worth exploration.

    Like

  21. Good article – This is a global issue. I’m in Vancouver Canada, you hear the same stories and experiences as soon as you get out of the city.

    Like

  22. Thanks for writing this Steve. This inequality has a real impact on children. 53% of kids in our public schools (92% attend public schools) are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Although there is no app to fix it, there are many things we can do to help, including making sure those children receive a great education.

    Like

  23. Nice, smart article with a lot of branching not to be dealt with here. It’s not exclussive for the US. I am in Spain and I can feel the same when I go to my town. I understand the concern in the US and reminds me the Gary Pisano’s book on manufacturing and innovation. We can make business plans dealing with i.e. the internet-of-the-things enclosing a share of the salary of the ants-working class people as necessary for fulfill the financial requirements of a given development. But I cast doubts on the sustainability of an approach that at the end treats most of the people as just comsumers. Not because it’s required a specialization but because asymmetry has limits. And the panoramic you describe (global, as Darcy points) implies a centralization and a control level that I am not sure is compatible with Western thought after Kant and the enligthening, even with the principles of the US independence. It seems to me that we are in a spot inside that wave that changed our world. And the spot should be consistent with that wave that was one in the direction of inclusiveness. If the spot moves out of the wave hardly will survive.

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  24. Thank you Steve for thought provoking article about Core America. Democrats claim to ‘feel your pain’, but push a liberal culture on the Core, who don’t believe it. Republicans push ‘trickle down economics’ which shows up to Core America as closed factories and lost jobs. If America loses its Core, it loses its direction. But no one in a position to help is really listening.

    Like

  25. Very insightful and wonderfully written. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

  26. Thank u for sharing, your story is truely inspiring

    Like

  27. I’m not American but your Canvas painted with so sharp, colorful and sentimental words compelled me to think a lot about what sort of problems people outside the tech bubble arr facing now.
    Well, I may be simplistic but it seams to me that there is a huge opportunity for tech people that made fortune to put theirs knowledge to work and solve billion dollar problems that really matter to a large population. Here it’s not only a matter of making money but also to give back to society and garanty its future.

    Like

  28. The most important part is at the end; it is not that working or changing jobs is impossible, it is the immobility of people (and their lives) that seems to prevent them from changing as the would around them changes.

    Everything is ending, you cannot expect or rely on where you are now and what you do now to last forever.

    It is the inertia of people, not the changes in the world that is causing this anxiousness.

    Like

    • Interesting view, broadly shared by the entrepreneurs community, that deserves further discussion. Just some spot: Maybe is not a matter of inertia but of nature. Not everybody can be entrepreneur waiting happily for changes. There are some scientific studies showing that entrepreneurial attitude has a genetic component, then at least is partially innate. On the other hand, history shows that along time life became easier for humans in time. It can be complicated to convince somebody without the appropriate genetic background that has to live with increasing uncertainty being one of the major arguments to increase the value of companies’ shareholders.

      Like

  29. Thank you Steve for writing this thought-provoking post. Most people are fixated in areas of their lives (whether by choice or circumstance) and don’t try to experience life at the other side of the spectrum.

    It is a nice reminder to know that whatever we see on mainstream media does not reflect the reality of what the world actually experiences.

    Like

  30. I hate to be the one to say it, manufacturing is coming back to the US. It’s not what people think though. The reason we can now undercut china’s labor is because of automation + the cost of shipping. I wanted Americans to be prepared but only those with the connections are prepared. There is still some hope, almost everything is still made in China for now.

    Like

    • Something similar is happening in Spain at least in some sectors where quality control is relevant, maintenance, just in time as well the mentioned factors eddie579 (automation, shipping expenses).

      Like

  31. Amazing read. I’m a brazilian electric/software engineer who lives in a city in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and that resonates to me a lot. Sometimes I want to live only on this “magical” tech world of infinite possibilities, but I’m daily forced to try converting this magic into real stuff to impact the lives of people around me who often live a much harder life than those described in the article.

    Like

  32. Thank you for this post.
    Touching.

    Like

  33. Steve,
    Thank you for taking the time to write this. In moving back to my childhood home in Central FL, I realized much of the same things for working class people across this state. It’s why I think FL swung the way it did. You’re right, there is no app for this. Rather, it requires concerted investment in fairness and honest balance, the way many lasting things do. It’s something we used to know how to do in tech, and need to re-embrace – after all, they are our potential customers.

    Like

  34. Keep warren weird!

    Like

  35. Thank you Steve. I live in a southamerican country and here we have the same and exact situation; same tech bubble, same hardworking class, and same disparity in income. But we also have who wants everything be given and solved by government, without a personal effort. On the other hand, we also have a few that wants everything go to their pockets, wealth, land, properties, etc. It will be difficult to reach the solution, but in the meantime, I think leaving the confort zone, study and work in something different, or have a company that worries for the welfare of others, stop being individual and selfish, be happy in what you do, would be a good thing to reach nowadays. Maybe this, in the future, will give us a better world for the future generations.

    Like

  36. Excellent and truth. My family lives around the D.C. Beltway… they have no idea what’s going on in TN where I live, and where a large population live the same.

    Like

  37. Thanks Steve.
    When the rich, powerful, and politically elite get together they have a way of milking the USA middle class to pay for problems oversees. And ‘pay’ for problems for large voting blocks

    The sad thing about these powerful folks forgetting about us people in the middle is this. They NEVER forget to collect our tax dollars and insurance premiums.

    Like

  38. Thanks for this note, Steve. It’s important and essential that thought leaders like you at Silicon Valley speak out. There is a social responsibility that comes with smartness in technology. As a European (Swiss, about your generation, having created and managed several techy IT businesses over the past 30 years) I am a fan of yours but also extremely worried these days about where the US is heading. Optimistic though, as long as speaking out is permitted and, most important, taken in and acted upon by your many colleagues in the valley.

    Like

  39. I think this comment summed up all the pain and anxiety the middle class experience everyday. I have not read or listened to better insight by any media anywhere.

    I sure the politicians are listening.

    Like

  40. This is a great an important piece, which I’ll be sharing here in Waterloo, Ont. Our problems of income inequality aren’t quite as dire as those in the U.S., but the tech-bubble effect is real and the explosive growth in tech is changing our community in ways that don’t always benefit everyone. Thanks for writing this, Steve.

    Like

  41. Excellent post. I also live outside the bubble but in the Southwest, which I’m convinced is the most overlooked part of the country. We are also suffering due to the shift from fossil fuels resulting in closing power plants, mines, and reduced drilling. Our area does not receive the attention on the national stage like the rust belt and Appalachian areas do. I work in entrepreneurship, but my entrepreneurs are more likely to want to start a main street business than a tech business. Their goal is not to develop an app and sell it to Google. It is to develop a business that will support their family. It really frustrates me that most of the writing about entrepreneurship focuses on tech. These small towns will only survive if there are new businesses in these areas. Just being quaint isn’t enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  42. Middle America: where the crap gets real!

    Liked by 1 person

  43. Steve, I write to you from our farm near Wrattonbully, Australia. Thank you for highlighting the gulf that exists between our worlds. You correctly point out that we have little understanding of the tech world, but I would also add that those living in the Silicon Valley tech bubble are ultimately more dependent on farmers than we are on apps and smartphones. It would be wonderful if you could address the important and inspirational work that we are doing to ensure that the world is fed in a sustainable way, and the care we take to safeguard our precious land and water. This might be an effective way to challenge the current hierarchical assessment of our differences?

    Liked by 1 person

  44. Was it ever any different (except for very short times, which are exceptional) ?

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  45. It seems to me like we need a Silicone valley YC for B corp and social mission driven startups Is it time to supercharge tech for good for people outside the tech bubble?

    Like

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