February 6, 2013
Many people grew up learning about bell curves as the shape of normal distribution of most problems were faced. Certainly, in a high middle class society such as the United States, the bell curve described the wealth and income distribution of American society: starting low with the few rich, rising up to reflect a large middle class, and tapering off with a sizeable but still diminishing poverty class.As the technology boom of the 1990s increased productivity, many assumed that the rising water level of the economy was raising all those middle class boats. But a different phenomenon has also occurred. The wealthy have gained substantially over the past two decades while the middle class has remained stagnant in real income, and the poor are simply poorer. This has led some to wonder if America is turning into a power-curve society: one where there are a relative few at the top and a gradually declining curve with a long tail of relatively poorer people. Recent research indicates thatmid-level jobs, the kind that helped create economic stability in the 1950s and 1960s, are becoming rarer. For the first time since the end of World War II, the middle class is apparently doing worse, not better, than previous generations. If these statistics are an accurate measure of how people are doing, then this is an alarming trend. What is the role of technology in these developments? How will future generations fare in a world defined less by broad distributions of wealth and more defined by power-curves? Will a small number of "winners," accumulate the larger share of wealth through an increasingly automated and globalized economy? If this is our trajectory, how can we brace ourselves for it? To answer these and similar questions the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program assembled a knowledgeable group of thinkers, leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs seasoned in the digital economy for a three-day dialogue in Aspen, Colorado in August of 2012. The event focused on the broader economic and social implications of an economy being redefined by new networks, behaviors and rules. A significant portion of the discussion also explored personal data as a possible untapped source of economic empowerment. This report covers the relationship between innovation and productivity, the "new economy of personal information", the workings of the "power-curve society", the future of jobs, and the social, policy and leadership implications of these changes.