Whatever happened to all the elevator operators, telephone switchboard operators, cabbage pickers and tollbooth collectors? These and many thousands of other jobs have been eliminated by automation technology. On the bright side, we can now directly dial almost any phone in the world and not have to worry about watching our seconds on long distance calls. But, these are jobs, for you and your neighbors, that will never come back.
Our losing so many jobs to machines is not the end of the world or the end of work, but it is traumatic. The changing nature of work (and availability of jobs) will create some economic challenges. You see senior citizens sacking groceries when they would rather be holding their grandbabies or nursing their bunions. You see college graduates assembling grease-burgers (hold the ketchup) when they would rather be building their families and paying off their student loans.
We’ve gone through this before. Whatever happened to tanners, weavers, cobblers, and blacksmiths? Those were the days of craftsmen, apprentices, and hand-carved ornamentation on furniture. You could tell who had made a piece by the personal touches in its design. You took care of what you owned because you knew that years of experience, hours of labor and, sometimes, sweat and blood went into its production.
Brute labor gave way to water wheels, which gave way to steam engines, which reorganized economies and the nature of work around factories. Eventually, electrical motors replaced steam, but the factories never went away. At each stage, production efficiency increased and standardization improved while the cost of production went down.
Factories became even more productive when assembly lines further-reduced skilled work to the tedium of machine tending or putting on the another part in the eighteen seconds before the next unit came down the line. And again, production efficiency and standardization went up while automation caused the cost of production to plummet.
Electricity was a “general purpose” game-changing technology. When electricity came in, you could be out of a job, especially if you didn’t want to get good at doing things the new way. Now, computers are also a new general-purpose technology. Once again, we are engaged in reinventing the work we do, how we organize our businesses, and how we manage our economy.
Since the early 1800s, growing productivity from increasing automation has caused the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person in America to keep on expanding. Worldwide growth has increased even faster. The key to this growth is combining our ability to apply knowledge creatively with our ability to make goods really fast.
But, in the end, those who finance the production are, more and more, the primary beneficiaries of these increased efficiencies. True, products may cost less, but fewer workers are working and they earn less for their labors.
Work has become a buyer’s market. In fact, many people’s wages are so low that they find they must swallow their pride and depend on government support programs just to manage. That is, the government has been drawn into using our taxes to supplement the poor wages and often-nonexistent benefits offered by many large corporations. I’ll be spending several articles brooding on the related subject of jobs, work, living wages and income disparity. Please stay tuned.