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chrystia freeland

In New York, this summer has lived up to its reputation as the silly season, with a pageant of political theatre comic enough to entertain even those with the most jaded tabloid sensibilities. That made President Barack Obama's wonkish speech this week about how to strengthen the middle class particularly welcome.

Mr. Obama addressed a familiar problem, and his comments echoed a commencement address he gave in Illinois eight years ago. It was a reminder that, beyond the froth of personal scandal, politics today is confronted with an existential question – how to ensure broadly shared middle-class prosperity in the 21st century.

As he did in his original 2005 speech, Mr. Obama situated the issue in broad, historical terms. The postwar era, he said, had offered the middle class "a basic bargain."

"Whether you owned a company, swept its floors, or worked anywhere in between," he said, the United States was a place where "your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement and, above all, to hand down a better life for your kids."

That pact held across the entire Western industrialized world, where the postwar era was a time of strong, and widely shared, growth.

In recent decades, however, as Mr. Obama put it, "that bargain began to fray."

He pointed to the most important and most worrying evidence that it had broken down: "The link between higher productivity and people's wages and salaries was severed – the income of the top 1 per cent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, while the typical family's barely budged."

Mr. Obama pointed to some of the familiar political drivers of this shift – weaker unions and tax cuts for the top earners.

He also noted structural factors – in particular, technological change and globalization – that have helped hollow out the middle class. These are the heart of the problem, because they are both largely positive and hard to change. We can't stop them, but we surely do want to reverse the devastating consequences for the middle class.

That is what makes a new paper by Frank Levy, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and Richard Murnane, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, so timely.

They delve into the question of precisely what kind of education we need to prepare middle-class workers for 21st-century jobs, and they begin with some surprising observations.

The first is that this is not a new problem; they note that nearly half a century ago, prescient advisers sent U.S. president Lyndon Johnson a memo warning about the beginnings of the phenomenon.

"A new era of production has begun. Its principles of organization are as different from those of the industrial revolution as those of the industrial era were different from the agricultural," the advisers cautioned. "This results in a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labour."

The second point Mr. Levy and Mr. Murnane make is even more striking. In their view, the problem isn't that schools aren't as good as they once were – it is that education needs to be transformed to meet the demands of a new age.

"American schools are not worse than they were in a previous generation. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary," they write. "Today's education problem stems from the increased complexity of foundational skills needed in today's economy."

So, how can schools meet the challenge of, as Mr. Levy and Mr. Murnane put it, preparing our kids to dance with robots? One of their strongest conclusions is about the importance of preschool education.

We have all mocked the helicopter parents who torment their infants with flash cards, but at least directionally, they have the right idea.

As Mr. Levy explained in an e-mail, "The computerization of work (and off-shoring) increases the need to acquire new information by eliminating repetitive jobs that can be performed by following directions. The jobs that remain and that pay well require much more solving new problems that require getting new information."

It turns out that this ability to solve new problems by getting new information is closely correlated with having a strong vocabulary as early as kindergarten.

In one way, that is good news – teaching three- and four-year-olds to read and to talk seems a lot less challenging than teaching 16-year-olds calculus and computer programming.

But it is also a reminder of another problem: The connection between a hollowed-out middle class and declining social mobility. If what you know when you are four years old will shape your professional success more than ever, being born into the right family may matter more than ever, too.

Chrystia Freeland is editor, Thomson Reuters Digital.

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