Technology will help promote democracy among citizen-workers

November 03, 1998|By Joanne Jacobs

WIRED workers are the wave of the future, political analysts say. Political parties will learn to surf the new demographics, or go under.

Wired workers solve problems as part of self-directed teams, and regularly use computers on the job. They tend to be self-reliant, mobile, affluent, pro-free market, socially tolerant and deeply concerned about educating their children and re-educating themselves.

A growing class

And they are multiplying. A 1998 survey for the Institute for the New California, a think tank, estimated that 57 percent of California workers are wired. They make up 37 percent of voters, up from 31 percent two years earlier.

Nationwide, about one-fifth of the electorate is wired, writes Mark Penn, the president's pollster, in Blueprint, the Democratic Leadership Council's new journal for "new Democrats."

Wired voters divide nearly evenly among Democrats, independents and Republicans. Most voted for President Clinton, but went with Republicans in state and congressional races.

Wired workers "don't feel comfortable with either party," write William Galston and Elaine Kamarck in the same issue. "They are likely to believe in self-reliance but backed by government that empowers."

Mr. Galston, now at the University of Maryland, was a domestic policy adviser for Mr. Clinton, while Ms. Kamarck, now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, advised Vice President Al Gore.

Clearly, the president's been listening to their advice about wired voters' interest in education. In the budget deal, Mr. Clinton pushed for $1.1 billion to hire additional elementary teachers to lower class size, federalizing a state and local responsibility. He tried to get federal money to repair schools, another state and local job.

Earlier, Mr. Clinton championed "Hope Scholarships," a $1,500 federal tax credit for the first two years of college and a "Lifelong Learning" tax credit covering 20 percent of the first $3,000 in tuition for junior year and beyond.

While the goal is to improve access to education, almost all the "Hope" money will subsidize students who would have gone to college anyhow.

In the industrial model of politics, workers labor in structured, hierarchical companies, turning one widget over and over again. They have little control over their own futures.

That describes a small and shrinking percentage of the work force. Compared with traditional workers, the wired are more likely to be college-educated, suburban, married, parents, between 25 and 49; they're more likely to have family incomes of more than $50,000 a year. They're also more likely to vote.

An electorate dominated by knowledge workers "will be increasingly skeptical of centralized, one-size-fits-all solutions," write Mr. Galston and Ms. Kamarck. "Rather, they will want a government that helps enable them to succeed, enhances the information to make their own choices and invests in the most dynamic source of progress and security in the new economy -- their own intellectual capital."

Wired workers are highly critical of public schools and interested in alternatives such as charter schools, the Institute for the New California survey found. Overwhelmingly, they believe workers will need constant retraining to keep up; they think employers should pay for it, not the government.

Compared with traditional workers, they tend to be more supportive of immigration and free trade, less supportive of affirmative action. They favor privatization of public services, such as mass transit, and want public-private partnerships to revitalize the cities. They want government to protect the environment and stay out of lifestyle issues.

"Wired workers are much more likely to want government to encourage individual savings than to make heroic efforts to save Social Security in its traditional New Deal form," write Mr. Galston and Ms. Kamarck.

"They are more likely to believe that government should make sure that people are free to pursue opportunity and less inclined to believe that government is directly responsible for improving people's lives."

Internet devotees

Naturally, the wired tend to be wired to the Internet, which means they're likely to seek out information for themselves, not accept it secondhand.

So the electorate is likely to become even more politically independent, less committed to one party or the other.

A large and growing number of Americans work together to solve problems on the job. They will want the same power in their lives as citizens. Technology is enabling Jefferson's sturdy, self-sufficient citizen-farmers to return as citizen-workers, the new democrats of the Information Age.

Joanne Jacobs is a member of the San Jose Mercury News editorial board. Her e-mail address: JJacobjmercury.com.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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