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The Smorgasbord Politics of Information Age Workers

September 22, 1996|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute. He is also business-trends analyst for KTTV Fox Television

Most analyses of this year's politics have focused on well-defined and time-honored constituencies--religious conservatives, women, suburbanites, retirees, trade unionists, minorities. Remarkably little attention has been paid to workers in the information-age economy and their politics.

Now comes a new study, to be released latter this week, by Frank Magid and Associates for the Institute for the New California. It offers some intriguing connections between people's involvement in knowledge-based work and their political inclinations. Neither of the two major political parties, it seems, appeals to this fast-rising sector of society, which tends to be more libertarian, economically and socially, than traditional Democrats and Republicans.

The study divides its sample of about 800 Californians into categories defined by work relations, use of computers and the extent to which their jobs are information-oriented. Information-age employees, the survey reveals, comprise about 38% of all workers in California and about a quarter of its electorate. They frequently use new technologies, particularly computers, and they prefer relatively unstructured work environments. In conventional political terms, these information-age workers are members of the broader category of moderate or "swing" voters.

Several characteristics make this group both the least understood and potentially most pivotal segment of the California electorate. In comparison with other groups surveyed in the study--retirees, traditional workers and those engaged in white-collar professions with more hierarchical structures--knowledge-based workers tend to be more affluent, better educated and younger. They toil in industries with the highest rate of growth, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They are computer scientists and engineers, software programmers and web-page designers, graphic artists and special-effects technicians, financial advisors and business consultants.

California, with about one-quarter of the nation's Internet hosts and close to half its multimedia companies, is ground zero for the country's emerging information economy. According to the state Department of Finance, California, over the past year, added 20,000 jobs in motion pictures, 24,000 in computer services and software, and 25,000 in electronics manufacturing. Overall, business services, the broadest category of high-wage "knowledge workers," grew by 94,000.

The politics of this mostly under-40, white-collar and well-educated group carry a mixed message for the Democratic and Republican parties. On the one hand, almost 60% strongly tilt toward reelecting President Bill Clinton, a significant gain from 1992, when only 49% supported him. On the other hand, they seem unwilling to turn over the legislative keys to the Democratic Party; the study found a slight plurality for Republican congressional candidates.

Largely because they are employed in the burgeoning parts of the state's economy, knowledge workers tend to be optimistic about California's future, with about half saying the state is moving in the right direction, compared with less than 40% of the general population. Although disproportionately Anglo and male, these workers do not fit the profile of the "angry white male." In short, they defy conventional political categorization.

Consider their views toward the economy. Given their relative youth, they favor personal saving rather than reliance on Social Security to pay for retirement. Not surprisingly, the high value they seem to place on self-reliance translates into support for imposing some time limits on welfare recipients.

Furthermore, their jobs in a highly competitive marketplace tend to prefigure their attitudes toward government's proper role in the economy: Government should make the rules, but the marketplace the decisions. Compared with the general population, they are wildly favorable toward small business, that bastion of entrepreneurial values.

"There's a tendency for these people to be very entrepreneurial, since many of us are running small businesses or looking into it," says Nick Rothenberg, the 31-year-old president of W-3 Design, a small Culver City-based website-development firm. "Even the biggest liberals are also capitalists," he says, "and realize that much of the conservative platform is far better for us."

Information-age workers, in another reflection of their employment situation, tend to enthusiastically embrace the proposition that "anyone who works hard can succeed," compared with the general population. Only 23% think that strong government intervention is necessary to overcome "structural" racism, compared to about 30% in the general sample.

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