November 11, 2005

Prof Analyzes Reasons For 'Death' of American Dream

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“The American Dream is in serious jeopardy,” according to Thomas Kochan, the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at MIT, and “we need to make it a public issue.” A former associate professor in ILR, Kochan was in Ithaca promoting his new book, Restoring the American Dream: A Working Families’ Agenda for America.

Kochan described what he termed the problems facing the vast majority of working Americans, including a broken health care and pension system, stagnant wages, growing inequality, longer working hours and a lack of both union presence and worker voice in employment issues. He said that these issues present not only a problem to the economy, but are a “national democratic issue” and must be tackled effectively in order to maintain a healthy society.

The evidence suggests, Kochan said, that the vast majority of Americans are either barely holding on to the quality of life they have enjoyed, or are falling behind. He described the inability of recent economic “recoveries” to produce enough jobs to meet demand, and the fact that only 17 percent of Americans now have defined benefit pensions, as a few examples of statistics that are “all going in the wrong direction.”

The only thing that “has kept society from exploding,” he said, “are the added wages from women and mothers who have added more family [working] hours.”

As part of the solution to both the structural and social challenges facing workers in this country, Kochan proposed “giving working families the tools they need to contribute and prosper in a modern, knowledge-based economy.” Because a large government program will not solve these problems, and businesses will not act unilaterally, there is a “responsibility to re-think how we approach workplace problems,” he explained. Kochan’s vision for solving these problems, described in his new book, begins by changing the traditional image of an “ideal” worker, innovating programs at a local level, and most importantly by expanding upon the existing employment relationship to create a more flexible, “family oriented” model. In order to best help the 38 million working people that live below the poverty line, business, stakeholders, churches, worker associations and unions must combine to create incentives for increased participation in training, renew focus on the educational system and find plausible solutions for solving our health-care crisis.

Besides the scope of the issues discussed in his book, Kochan remains confident that Americans will begin to agitate for dialogue on these problems, and will eventually pressure companies, government and policy groups to engage the workforce to find appropriate remedies. About 75 faculty members and students attended his talk, including Daniel MacDonald MILR ’06, who is planning to work in the field of conflict resolution.

“These are exciting ideas,” he commented, and “[it’s] evident that we need to have a conversation about these issues.” Similarly, Beth Dyer said that “it’s very hard to disagree with anything [Kochan] said. I think we’re in an incredibly difficult situation, and it’s going to take a lot of thought and a lot of discussion.”

Kochan, who returns to Ithaca bi-annually to visit friends, has fond memories of his time spent at Cornell. “Those were fantastic years,” he said. “It was an opportunity to work with such challenging students, and with a group of faculty who worked together – and went on to do great things.”

Archived article by Scott Rosenthal
Sun Contributor