It’s infrastructure month. Congressional negotiators are deep in budget negotiations, trying to figure out how much of the Biden social and climate infrastructure proposals they can fit into a reconciliation bill. Democrats argue that we finally have a chance to bring the United States into line with other advanced developed economies: providing the infrastructure necessary to allow caregivers to work and contribute their skills and talent to the economy while also ensuring that our children thrive, our seniors live with dignity and autonomy, and those who are sick in body or mind or less abled get the care they need. Republicans worry about deficits, inflation, and dependence on the government.
Suppose, however, we break through this binary opposition and think bigger and bolder. Not bigger in terms of dollars, necessarily, but in terms of what kinds of institutions and infrastructure we need for a new American economy, one that is far more equitable, dynamic, and resilient. For that economy, we need a whole new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, classic American risk-takers.
Young people starting out in the economy (and their worried parents) know that they have to make their own luck. Traditional jobs, much less careers, are evolving as fast as job descriptions can be written. Automation is advancing relentlessly. As Lumina Foundation president James Merisotis writes in his book “Human Work,” “Rather than be defined by a job, people increasingly are defining themselves by their ability to do various kinds of work, and by their talent.”
Or consider how we are going to renew the economies of so many smaller towns and communities devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, in ways that also tackle systemic racism. Women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color receive far less funding and support from venture capitalists than white men do, a discrepancy that is even greater off the coasts. Yet the ideas and energy to start something new are equally distributed. Moreover, recent research on risk-taking demonstrates that women take just as many risks as men, indeed sometimes more, depending on the type of risk.
If we want to encourage a whole generation of Americans to invent, innovate, create, and experiment, we have to provide far more security. That is not as paradoxical as it may seem. Most of us are not Alex Honnold, solo climbing without ropes up the sheerest cliffs in the world. How far we are willing to try to climb depends on how far we have to fall and whether anyone will catch us.
Gelfand further finds that groups under threat — whether at the family, local, or national level — tighten up, becoming more sensitive to risk and more likely to stick to the rules. It is obvious when you think about it. The military, for instance, is the tightest, most rule-bound culture there is. No one wants pushback when everyone’s lives are at stake. Threats come in many forms, however. If mortgaging your house to finance a new venture means losing it and ending up on the street, or if a health emergency could spell bankruptcy, or if dropping out of school to follow a crazy idea means being unable to repay student loans, then it’s better to stick to the familiar and the proven, no matter how unsatisfying.
We have actually run our own national experiment on the relationship between security and risk over the past decade. The flood of young people willing to try their hand at startups in Silicon Valley and across the country was spurred in part by the Obama administration’s expansion of parental health insurance for children until they turn 26. Before that, young people leaving high school or college had to find jobs in the regular workforce as fast as possible — or stay in school— to ensure that they moved from their parents’ health insurance to their employers’. In a similar vein, the nation’s artists, in some ways our ultimate risk-takers, spoke up in strong support of Obamacare.
Moreover, it is telling that the vocabulary of venture capital begins with “the friends and family round”: the initial funds that an entrepreneur can rustle up in $10,000 and $20,000 increments from relatives and friends who have struck it rich, and anyone else to whom the entrepreneur can appeal. People who don’t have family and friends of means are out of luck.
Investing in innovators and entrepreneurs, in a generation of Americans who are focused on developing their talent and creating their own livelihoods, means providing enough security to give them not just a threadbare safety net to stave off destitution but instead a foundation for learning, experimenting, discovering, and risk-taking.
Imagine a children’s play structure, with sturdy platforms, ropes, and ladders in different directions, tunnels that open up in surprising places, and slides and sawdust pits for rapid exits and soft landings. We design those structures to allow kids to explore and test their limits, to help them grow and learn. Suppose we thought about building a new social and economic foundation for Americans on the same principles. Not a threadbare safety net designed to ward off economic ruin, but a genuine foundation for growth and risk-taking.
We could start with early education and care designed to develop young brains and encourage children to explore and learn. We can draw on ongoing research in neuroscience and developmental psychology to develop a curriculum that builds curiosity, psychological safety, and both independence and interdependence. We could provide many more options for older students to combine work and learning opportunities in school and out, such as youth apprenticeships and stackable certificates that permit the acquisition of new skills over the course of their careers, both on the job and in the now often virtual classroom. Portable benefits, such as retirement accounts that roll from one job to another, universal health care, and care and economic policies designed to support strong families — such as paid family leave, Social Security for family caregivers, child tax credits, and care vouchers and subsidies of many different kinds — would provide a layer of insurance and reassurance to Americans holding on to middle class lives by their fingernails. And pools of investment capital available to a far wider range of entrepreneurs in communities across the country could jumpstart a new age of innovation.
The Biden infrastructure package has many of these elements. But it really should be thought of as a blueprint for a new generation of American innovation.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is the CEO of New America. Her latest book, “Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics,” will be published on Tuesday.