Financial Wellness for All Americans

(Part 3 of 3)

We Can Do Better, and We Should

Employee financial wellness programs, of the kinds I described in my previous post, are a net good. But the U.S. can do better via partnerships among employers, nonprofits and government entities. We should have financial wellness for all Americans. Let’s think about how.

Don’t Hold Your Breath on UBI

There are some good and even powerful people working on the idea of a universal basic income (or UBI), which in theory would go a long way to improving the financial wellness of Americans. It may yet happen in the long run, though I remain skeptical that’ll be anytime soon.  In a country that still won’t even change it’s highly expensive and dysfunctional healthcare system, UBI feels unlikely.

Hurry Up and Make Online Education Free

But other things are, I believe, more achieveable. One of those is a universal, free higher education program in the U.S. I’ve outlined an idea for this in a previous post

It’s badly needed and will work better if employers are involved, able to incorporate their own online training and development courses into the offerings. This would give them a more direct pipeline to well-trained potential recruits.

Although my original proposal focused on online college education, it would not need to be limited to that. It could include trade schools as well, although trying to learn certain trades completely online isn’t feasible. There’s no replacement for hands-on learning in some fields.

Get with the Apprenticeship Program

This leads me to the idea of apprenticeship programs. We could, in part, crib from the very successful German apprenticeship programs, which include:

  • an employer-integrated and supported system in which apprentices not only get practical experience but paychecks as well
  • a well-strucured curriculum that truly prepares people for careers
  • cerifications that talent acquistion professionals recognize
  • accessibility by people who may not have stellar academic credentials but are willing and eager to learn

Figure Out How to Help Employees Save More

There are many possibilities here, but let’s point to an existing program as an example of how employers and the government can work together to increase employee financial well-being. The Secure Act 2.0 has already been passed into law. It seems like a worthy piece of legislation, though we’ll find out more once it goes into effective. Here are some of the features:

  • Automatic enrollment in retirement savings programs. Starting in 2025, most organizations with 401(k) and 403(b) plans will be required to automatically enroll employees.
  • Automatic enrollment of employees in emergency savings accounts, which are capped at $2,500 or less.
  • Various other savings related features, such as making it easier for savers to get their tax credits, being able to roll over unused 529 (that is, college saving) plan money, allowing people who are 50 and older to make additional “catch-up contributions” to their retirement accounts, and more.

There are other ideas that could be enacted as well. For example, a surprising number of Americans do not have access to traditional banking services, which can make it difficult to save money or access credit. By promoting financial inclusion and expanding access to banking services, more Americans can improve their financial well-being.

Ensure More Affordable Childcare

Childcare can be brutally expensive for many families. If we can increase affordable access to childcare, families will have a lot more money in their pockets to spend and to save.

Some child care costs more than college, but young parents haven’t had the time to save up for it. What’s more, it’s super costly to businesses. When childcare arrangements break down for any reason, parents are forced to scramble, and this results in $4.4 billion due to lost productivity.

What we do know, though, is that lowering the cost of child care could have a huge impact on the financial well-being of families with young children.

President Biden’s budget for the current fiscal year includes “an investment of $600 billion in early care and education that would fund states to provide universal preschool for four-year-olds and subsidize high-quality child care from birth to age five for families earning up to $200,000.”

The goal is that the lowest income families would pay nothing out-of-pocket and most families would pay no more than $10 a day per child. But with a divided U.S. Congress, it seems unlikely this kind of proposal will go through for now.

Get with Your Community

There are, of course, other ways of supporting employee financial wellness that do not involve government or employers. For example, there are financial support groups, both formal and informal. Various formal groups try to help people improve their ability to save money, build credit, gain a greater level of financial literacy, etc.  Then are more informal groups of friends or family members who can provide others with supportive networks and help them stay accountable.

Take a Look at Fintech

Some financial technology (fintech) companies offer new-fangled financial products and services, such as budgeting apps, online investment platforms, and digital banking services. I don’t use any fintech per se, but some people claim fintech’s latest apps and services are more affordable than the stuff coming from traditional financial services.

Caveat emptor, but they might be worth a try, especially for the younger employees they seem to be targeting.

Financial Wellness Has Become More Critical

As I write this, the media–both real and social–is rife with all kinds of economic doomsayers. Honestly, it’s wearing a bit thin. They’ve daily been predicting doom for a couple of years now.

Yes, they’ve often been wrong, but eventually we’ll get a honest-to-God recession. We always do. Maybe it’ll be a big ‘un, maybe it won’t.

Credit Card Debt Is Now High

But, to fair to the doomsayers, there are some bad signs. One of them is that, given inflation rates, more people are leaning on credit cards to afford necessities such as food and rent. In fact, total credit card debt rose to a record $930.6 billion at the end of 2022, an 18.5% spike from a year earlier, and the average balance rose to $5,805.

That all sounds pretty grim. But I should also note that delinquency rates on credit card are still pretty low by historical standards, something the doomsayers seldom mention.

Now, if people start losing their jobs in huge numbers, that could change pretty quickly. Till then, however, chill a bit, doomers.

Economic Indicators Are So-So

There are a lot of financial indicators you can look at to determine the health of an economy, such as:

  • treasury yield curves (slightly inverted, not a great sign)
  • unemployment rates, still very low (typically a good sign, unless you’re worried about an overheated, inflationary economy)
  • GDP growth (predictions for the first quarter of 2023 are all over the place, from -.5% to +1.1%, depending on the source)
  • then there are things like industrial production, durable good orders, and consumer spending, none of which look especially terrible right now

But a Lot of Consumers Are Really Hurting

So, the economic indicators are pretty mixed right now, though none look disastrous. But if you’re an American consumer, especially one in lower-income brackets, things are bleaker.

The Washington Post reports, “[T]he average lower-income family spends much more than it earns. These families live paycheck to paycheck and still can’t pay their bills; they typically bridge the gap between what they earn and what they spend with a combination of government benefits and loans.

Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats

These are great days for political demagogues, who focus on winding up frustrated people seeking someone to blame for their problems. These politicians seldom if ever have viable long-term solutions, but they are excellent at scapegoating and spreading outrage and fear,  hoping to accrue power that way.

And that’s part of my fear of what will happen if we, as a nation, can’t ensure the financial wellness of employees. Because if they’re not well, then they’ll become ever more likely to vote  in some despot who signals being a “strong leader.”

In the end, these dictatorial demagogues are the types of people who can set the nation back indefinitely in terms of civil liberties and basic morality. So, we want financially well Americans, especially working Americans, not just because providing such wellness is the right thing to do for them. But because it’s the right thing to do for all of us

Will ChatGPT and Bossism Vindicate the Luddites?

I recently wrote about how bossism, to the degree its emerging, is likely to be short-lived. This is especially true in light of the latest jobs creation data. In January 2023, U.S. employers added a whopping 517,000 new jobs and the jobless rate dropped to 3.4%, the lowest level in 53 years!

But what if more powerful artificial intelligence applications such as ChatGPT ultimately distort and disrupt labor markets? Then maybe bossism becomes the leadership standard for the foreseeable future.

Will ChatGPT and Its Ilk Eat Our Jobs?

The long-term rise in bossism would be most likely if AI wiped out a huge swatch of white-collar positions. Since ChatGPT went viral, there has been a rash of articles on whether or not ChatGPT will annihilate millions of jobs. Here’s just a sampling:

How ChatGPT Will Destabilize White-Collar Work

ChatGPT and How AI Disrupts Industries

Does ChatGPT Mean Robots Are Coming For the Skilled Jobs?

ChatGPT could come for our jobs. Here are the 10 roles AI is most likely to replace.

Artificial intelligence could be a ‘real threat’ to ‘a lot of jobs,’ computer expert says

ChatGPT could make these jobs obsolete: ‘The wolf is at the door’

Will Chat GPT Replace Your Job As a Programmer?

These jobs are most likely to be replaced by ChatGPT and AI

The Long Bossism Scenario

A scenario in which bossism becomes the long-term leadership standard would go something like this.

Millions of knowledge workers become redundant thanks to ever improving versions of ChatGPT-like apps. The knowledge workers who hang onto their jobs bring little labor clout to the table, so bosses have no incentive to concern themselves with employee experience, diversity, well-being, etc.

As knowledge workers are replaced by AI, there’s a sudden flood of them into service and blue-collar occupations. This puts wage and employment pressures on the rest of the economy. A deflationary period settles in while wealth inequality explodes as the owners of the “means of production” (which are now AI instances) get monumentally rich.

This AI-driven expansion of bossism and the rule of the uber-rich becomes a long-term trend as unemployment skyrockets and the gross number of jobs shrinks. There’s a growing consensus that the fears of the 19th century Luddites have finally finally been realized: that is, from now on, the total number of jobs in the global economy will only shrink as AI demonstrates it can do anything a knowledge worker can do, except better, cheaper, and more quickly.

The Proliferation of AI-Based Roles

But if the Luddite nightmare did occur, it would mark the end of a long-term historical trend in which new technologies ultimately create more jobs than are lost to them.

Although so far there have been a lot more articles on how generative AI might destroy rather than create jobs, that doesn’t mean the latter won’t happen. Indeed, creating YouTube videos on how to capitalize on ChatGPT is all the rage at the moment.

With new businesses come new jobs, of course. And it’s easy to imagine brand new roles created by generative AI. Here, for example, are some new jobs currently being advertised on the freelancing platform UpWork:

  • “Looking for someone who can generate content on ChatGPT”
  • “ChatGPT Chatbot for real estate”
  • “Create a Chatbot using ChatGPT”
  • “Looking for a ChatGPT freelancer who can bring my ideas to life”
  • “Need ChatGPT Chatbot Expert”
  • “Chatgpt using sql server”
  • “ChatGPT Consultant – Contract to Hire”

A Future Uncertain

The bottom line is that nobody really knows how these powerful generative AI tools are going to affect the labor market in the long term. Maybe there they will result in high unemployment, declining wages and a more draconian workplace (in which case, look out for much more serious talk about universal basic incomes).

Or maybe the new AIs will be a net job creator as organizations scramble for talent that can properly embed those technologies into reinvented work processes. And, if the AIs result in dramatically higher rates of productivity, then organizations will have more income to spend on AI-augmented employees.

Stay tuned. In the meantime, you might want to brush up on those generative AI skills. It couldn’t hurt, right?

Featured image: The Leader of the Luddites. Published in May 1812 by Messrs. Walker and Knight, Sweetings Alley, Royal Exchange; see British Museum reference.

Poetry, Programming and People Management

The human brain does ambiguity well. Most of us are strangely drawn to multiple meanings, surrealities and pattern recognition. We thrive on metaphors and similes, rejoice in symbols, dance to nonsense syllables and ad hoc syncopations. And paradoxes? We both hate and love them — paradoxically, of course.

No More Artful Ambiguities

This may be one of the reasons so many people become frustrated and even fearful when confronted by math and logic. Those disciplines feel so cold and hard-edged with their unitary meanings and wearisome concatenations of implacable reasoning.

It’s the same with computer coding. If you take an Introduction to Computer Science course, the professors often go out of their way to compare natural languages (a phrase which itself is an oxymoron) with computer languages.

Yao graph with number of ray k=8; from Wikimedia, by Rocchini

The gist is that while while both types of language share common and, indeed, essential properties such as syntax and semantics, they differ widely in that natural language can often be understood even when the speaker or writer fails to follow basic spelling or grammatical rules. In contrast, a computer program (much like a mathematical equation) will typically fail to work if even a single character is left out or misplaced. An absent bracket can be a fatal bug, a backwards greater-than symbol can cause an infinite loop, a poorly assigned variable can inadvertently turn  100 dollars into a dime.

A computer has no use for the artful ambiguities and multiple meanings of poetry. If you give the machine a couple of lines of verse such asanyone lived in a pretty how town (with up so floating many bells down)”,  it will — unless you carefully guide the words into the code as a string —  give you an error message.  (I know a lot of people who might respond the same way, of course.)  Yet, without the precisely imprecise wordplay of e e cummings, those lines of poetry would not be poetry at all.

How Does People Management Fit?

So, what does any of this have to do with people management?

Just this: people management is sometimes poetry, sometimes programming, and it helps to know which is which. Before the rise of civilizations and cities, when virtually all people were hunting and gathering in smallish bands and clans, people management (in the forms it would have existed then) was all poetry.

Sure, there were unwritten rules, harsh taboos, constant rumors and deadly serious superstitions. And a leader, to the degree there were leaders as we understand them today, could leverage those cultural components to influence his or her clansmen. But this was mostly a matter of nuance, persuasion, the formation of alliances, the wielding of knowledge and lore (when, that is, it wasn’t a matter of force and coercion). In the largest sense, it was art and song.

Today, good managers must still be attuned to the poetry of human attitudes and actions, able to sort through the ambiguities of rumor mills and hurt feelings and arrogant posturings. But now managers must also cope with or even rely on laws, regulations and rules.

Hard Coding Humanity

Is there a “zero tolerance” clause in the company policy somewhere? Then even a terrific employee who gets caught using illegal drugs may need to go.  Are there complex legal regulations barring a worker from having financial holdings in a certain client company? Well, then, the employee must divest or hit the door. There are countless other examples of rules that are as hard-and-fast as rule-of-law societies can make them. Although these human rules will never be quite as rigorous as the requirements of programming languages, they are a kind of human programming; there are true and false statements,  barriers that can’t be broken, classifications that should never be breached.

This is why we have legal departments. It is also why uncertain managers call in the hired gun of the HR professional to take care of dismissals and drug tests and background checks.

We simultaneously hate  this programming of human behavior and depend on it. We can, for example, rely on the kind of code that states:

while worker performance >= level 3: { {

provide paycheck and health insurance }

else if: {

performance <= level 2:

leverage performance review proceedings


Okay, the coding in companies is much more complex than that. Still, the point is that we rely on it because it’s clean, logical and, best of all, spares us from having to make hard and potentially dangerous decisions on our own. In such settings, we are no longer “poets of people management,” the kind of managers who might have led a clan though a vast and dangerous prehistoric wilderness in millennia gone by.

People in Both Programs and Poetry

This dependence on programming is a shame in many ways, one that harried managers should ponder from time to time.  I know we can’t utterly avoid modern programming — at least, not unless we retreat into the wildness, as metaphorically  isolated as Thoreau in his cabin by Walden Pond. Nor should we. The rule of law is essential to our modern societies, and formal policies are often forged to protect employees from arbitrary or biased decisions. Still, we might strive to be better poets, respecting employees as the people they are rather than viewing them as components of a well-programmed machine.

Walden Pond; from Wikimedia, by QuarterCircleS
Featured image: The Parnassus (1511) by Raphael: famous poets recite alongside the nine Muses atop Mount Parnassus.

Do You Treat Employees Like Fixed-Program Computers?

When All Programs Were Fixed

Computers didn’t always work they do today. The first ones were what we now called “fixed-program computers,” which means that, without some serious  and complex adjustments, they could do only one type of computation.

Sometimes that type of computer was superbly useful, such as when breaking Nazi codes during World War II (see the bombe below). Still, they weren’t much more programmable than a calculator, which is a kind of modern-day fixed program computer.

Along Came John and Alan

The brilliant mathematician John von Neumann and colleagues had a different vision of what a computer should be. To be specific, they had Alan Turing’s vision of a “universal computing machine,” a theoretical machine that the genius Turing dreamt up in 1936. Without going into specifics, let’s just say that the von Neumann model used an architecture has been very influential up the present day.

One of the biggest advantages associated with Turing/von Neumann computers is that multiple programs can be stored in them, allowing them to do many different things depending on which programs are running.

Von Neumann architecture: Wikimedia

Today’s employers clearly see the advantage of stored-program computers. Yet I’d argue that many treat their employees and applicants more like the fixed-program computers of yesteryear.  That is, firms make a lot of hiring decisions based more on what people know when they walk in the door than based on their ability to acquire new learning.  These days, experts are well paid largely because of the “fixed” knowledge and capabilities they have. Most bright people just out of college, however, don’t have the same fixed knowledge and so are viewed as less valuable assets.

The Programmable Person

Employers aren’t entirely in the wrong here. It’s a lot easier to load a new software package into a modern computer than it is to train an employee who lacks proper skill sets.  It takes money and time for workers to develop expertise, resources that employers don’t want to “waste” in training.

But there’s also an irony here: human beings are the fastest learning animals (or machines, for that matter) in the history of, well, the universe, as far as we know. People are born to learn (we aren’t designated as sapiens sapiens for nothing), and we tend to pick things up quickly.

The Half-Life of Knowledge

What’s more, there’s a half-life to existing knowledge and techniques in most professions. An experienced doctor may misdiagnose a patient simply because his or her knowledge about certain symptoms or treatments are out-of date. The same concept applies to all kinds of employees but especially to professionals such as engineers, scientists, lawyers, and doctors. In other words, it applies to a lot of the people who earn the largest salaries in the corporate world.

Samuel Arbesman, author of The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, stated in a TEDx video, “Overall, we know how knowledge grows, and just as we know how knowledge grows, so too do we know how knowledge becomes overturned. ” Yet, in our recruitment and training policies, firms often act as if we don’t know this.

The only antidote to the shortening half-life of skills is more learning, whether it’s formal, informal or (preferably) both. And the only antidote to a lack of experience is giving people experience, or at least a good facsimile of experience, as in simulation-based learning.

The problem of treating people like fixed-program computers is part of a larger skills-shortage mythology. In his book  Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs , Prof. Peter Cappelli pointed to three driving factors behind the skills myth. A Washington Post article sums up:

Cappelli points to many’s unwillingness to pay market wages, their dependence on tightly calibrated software programs that screen out qualified candidates, and their ignorance about the lost opportunities when jobs remain unfilled…”Organizations typically have very good data on the costs of their operations—they can tell you to the penny how much each employee costs them,” Cappelli writes, “but most have little if any idea of the [economic or financial] value each employee contributes to the organization.” If more employers could see the opportunity cost of not having, say, a qualified engineer in place on an oil rig, or a mobile-device programmer ready to implement a new business idea, they’d be more likely to fill that open job with a less-than-perfect candidate and offer them on-the-job training.

Losing the Fixed-Program Mindset

The fixed-program mentality should increasingly become a relic of the past. Today, we know more than ever about how to provide good training to people, and we have a growing range of new technologies and paradigms, such as game-based learning, extended enterprise elearning systems, mobile learning and “massively open online courses” (aka, MOOCs).

A squad of soldiers learn communication and decision-making skills during virtual missions: Wikimedia

With such technologies, it’s become possible for employers to train future applicants even before they apply for a position. For example, a company that needs more employees trained in a specific set of programming languages could work with a provider to build online courses that teach those languages. Or they could potentially provide such training themselves via extended enterprise learning management systems.

The point is that there are more learning options today ever before. We live in a new age during which smart corporations will able to adopt a learning paradigm that is closer to that of stored-program computers, one that they’ve trusted their technologies to for over half a century.

Featured image: A rebuild of a British Bombe located at Bletchley Park museum. Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Maksim. Wikimedia Commons.