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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

In A Disruptive World: Free College For All

February 16, 2018 

As humans know so well, change is inevitable. But progress should not be optional. With the unfolding of our 21st century, those with the knowledge, education, skills, and ability to adapt to change will survive.

Charles Darwin put it so eloquently a century ago, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

Just this week, The New York Times reported that ‘livery driver’ Doug Schifter, who made his living driving a taxi, “killed himself with a shotgun in front of City Hall in Lower Manhattan, having written a lengthy Facebook post several hours earlier laying out the structural cruelties that had left him in such dire circumstance.” He put the spotlight on how the “gig” economy of Uber and Lyft drivers helped destroy his taxi driving life after 30 years in the business.

For those unfamiliar with the “gig” economy, it is 21st-century work environment. Temporary and part-time/’as needed’ positions are now common in many organizations who contract with independent contractors for short-term assignments. Independent contractors work for themselves or work for companies like Uber, creating a patchwork of jobs – sometimes with second and third jobs – to support themselves and families.

In the Intuit 2020 Report: 20 Trends that Will Shape the Next Decade, Trend 14. Work Shifts from Full-time to Free Agent Employment, notes that The Great Recession of 2008 will continue “accelerating the long-term trend towards a contingent workforce … Over the next decade, the number of contingent employees will increase worldwide. In the U.S. alone, contingent workers will exceed 40 percent of the workforce by 2020.” Will these jobs provide a livable wage that helps sustain the American Dream? Many Americans feel their dream has turned into a nightmare.

In 1991, British management guru Charles Handy wrote The Age of Unreason in which he foresaw that dramatic changes would transform business, education, and the nature of work with new developments in technology that would shift worker demand from manual to cerebral skills. He foresaw the virtual disappearance of lifelong, full-time jobs, maintaining that “discontinuous change requires discontinuous, upside-down thinking” and that technology would demand a “need for new kinds of organizations, new approaches to work, new types of schools, and new ideas about the nature of our society.”

It should come as no surprise two decades later that many Americans fear losing their jobs to automation along with an increasing technology that creates a ‘gig economy’ and unknown 21st-century jobs.

A Pew Research Center poll last October found that nearly three-quarters of respondents worried that “computers and robots could do most of the work currently done by humans.”

The Report went on to say, “Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have the potential to automate a wide range of human activities and to dramatically reshape the way that Americans live and work in the coming decades.”

News of any suicide hits me hard with memories of my own two brothers who took their lives. They were unable to adjust to the stresses that haunted them. Like all humans, they were flawed, but not weak. Research shows it takes great strength to take your own life.

Change Needs To Bring Benefits

We can’t and should not attempt to slow down or stop change brought about by disruptive ideas, and technology like AI (artificial intelligence) which holds great promise for advancing society and making life better for us all.

Yet, as a society, we do owe it to people being displaced from the assembly lines, gas stations, fast food restaurants, trucks and taxi drivers even as technology, automation, and globalization changes the way they earn a paycheck, their livelihood, and dignity. Yes, these technologies create new jobs, but they also displace hardworking Americans, many of whom, for a variety of reasons, can’t adapt to the change that the 21st century has wrought.

Should we really take a survival of the fittest mentality and say that only the hardest and those able to adapt to change will survive? Today it is cashiers and auto workers. Will tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles spell doom for independent Uber drivers along with cabbies, pizza delivery, and truck drivers?

AI may soon help displace white collar workers with jobs like attorneys, bookkeepers, and accountants who are under threat of being displaced as well.

There is fear gripping blue collar, and increasingly, white-collar Americans. This fear, manifested in the upset Trump presidential victory, has yet to subside. How shall we embrace the sentiments voiced in the National Commission on Technology, Automation and Economic Progress, Technology and the American Economy study that explains: “The basic fact is that technology eliminates jobs, not work. It is the continuing obligation of economic policy to match increases in productive potential with increases in purchasing power and demand. Otherwise, the potential created by technical progress runs to waste in idle capacity, unemployment, and deprivation”.

It has been reported that Americans will face mounting job losses and displacement due to exponential advances in automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and other disruptive ideas. Automation has emerged as a bigger threat to American jobs than globalization or immigration combined.


Late last year, Google unveiled an initiative to help train Americans for jobs in technology and committed to donating $1 billion over the next five years to nonprofits in education and professional training. The new program, Grow with Google, plans to create an online destination for job seekers to get training and professional certificates and for businesses to improve their web services. The company’s goal, executives said, is to allow anyone with an internet connection to become proficient with technology and prepare for a job in areas like information technology support and app development.

Google’s CEO Sundar Picha is to be commended for his retraining initiative. He announced the program at Google’s Pittsburgh office, far from the search giant’s Silicon Valley headquarters. He noted the Pittsburgh transformation from an industrial manufacturing center for steel to a hub of robotics and artificial intelligence engineering. “We understand there is uncertainty and even concern about the pace of technological change, but we know that technology will be an engine of America’s growth for years to come,” Mr. Pichai said. “The nature of work is fundamentally changing, and that is shifting the link between education, training, and opportunity.”

This recent public, purposeful suicide, brings attention to workers having their lives snuffed out like a cigarette butt, ought to be a warning to our government officials: you must invest in retraining and social safety net programs for people being displaced by disruptive change taking place in our economy. You can’t and should not stop change— you can and should help citizens adapt!

Along with technological change and automation comes disruption and real-life fears that these breakthroughs that may improve some lives are also ruining others’, upending entire industries and eliminating millions of jobs. There is a need to help American workers make this transition that takes into account the humanity of change.

Action- Free College for All

What more can and should our state and federal government do to help people adjust?

One thing Michigan could do to catapult us into a leadership position nationally and internationally is offering – at a bare minimum – 2 years of free college. The Campaign for Free College Tuition is building a broad inter-generational coalition in support of increasing opportunity and building a stronger economy by making public colleges tuition-free. Their goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances. Interestingly the organization is led by people with deep Michigan political and policy roots: Morley Winifred and Doug Ross.

Providing free college is gaining strong momentum as a smart bipartisan policy and Michigan should play a lead role in eliminating cost as a barrier to attaining a postsecondary education.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition (CFCT) has laid out a “how to book” designed to help state policymakers think through the elements of making college tuition free. It contains advice on funding, building support, drafting policy, and many proven examples of successful programs. Throughout the briefing book, they outline different provisions that will produce a return on a state’s investment, which more than justify the establishment of free college tuition.

We need to make higher education affordable for everyone if we are going to have a workforce with the skills needed for us to compete in the global marketplace where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly.

It is only right and just that our government helps people adjust to this new world order. A state and a nation that invests in its people will thrive. It hard to see how we survive without this investment.

Tom Watkins has reinvented himself multiple times throughout his career: juvenile justice, consultant with a major CPA firm, business leader, higher education faculty and administration, Michigan state superintendent of schools, state director of the Michigan Department of mental health, China “expert,” campaign manager, prolific author. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


February 15, 2018 · Filed under Tom Watkins

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Jon Madian // Feb 16, 2018 at 1:25 am

    Great, far ranging piece. Appreciate the very apt quotes as well as the very logical conclusion. That young people or others needing education should have to go into debt to become productive citizens is absolutely heart breaking and an indictment of humanity! Wake up America and smell your humanity!!



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