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Redefining Work

Is technology a net creator or destroyer of jobs? The question is as old as the Industrial Revolution, when workers in mills found themselves put out of work by large industrial looms. In France, they threw their shoes (sabots) into the weaving machines to destroy them – the origin of the term “sabotage”. The protests didn’t stop the machines, however, and the workers had to find something else to do in an ever-changing economy where machines did more and more work.

Today, the pace of technological change is faster than ever, with new gadgets coming into our lives constantly. Automation is also transforming our lives, with new robots and artificial intelligence replacing workers constantly. Are today’s productivity gains tomorrow’s unemployment? Increasingly those who study technology in our lives and the popular media are coming to the conclusion that yes, workers are net losers in the race against tech. And this is not a partisan issue.

The Coke machine at Burger King.  Not a huge job killer, but a sign of the future?

The Coke machine at Burger King. Not a huge job killer, but a sign of the future?

If you walk into a Burger King and place your order, the workers get busy putting it together. But while you wait, the person at the counter will hand you a cup for the automated Coke machine usually just off to the side. You, the consumer, use the system to select from hundreds of beverages mixed to your specifications.

It’s not a huge job-stealer as technology goes, but what’s to stop BK from taking it further? Certainly, a small terminal could take your order and payment. A machine that makes burgers isn’t hard to imagine, nor is one that makes fries. A fully automated burger dispensing store that isn’t even paid minimum wage could well be on the horizon.

The growth in productivity in postwar US was tied directly to the growth in the number of workers until 1999. Output grew at an average of 2.1% per year, as did the number of jobs. Production continues to grow at a similar annual pace, but the number of jobs has slowed to 0.5% since the start of the Managed Depression in 2000. That has rebounded lately to a net rate closer to 2.0%, but it still lags the increase in GDP – forecast to be 3.4% in 2015. As we have noted, much of the work created has not been full time employment but contract work – which has fewer guarantees and protections.

Not all robots are evil.

Not all robots are evil.

Is automation to blame? “Technological progress has been a big cause—and my prediction for the future is that it will be an even bigger force going forward,” says Andrew McAfee, a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s business school and author of the book “Race Against the Machine.” Advanced automation keeps pushing up output, he says, “but there’s less and less demand for good old-fashioned human labor.”

He is far from the only one sounding the alarm. Barataria noted this problem in August, and has in the past speculated there is evidence that there is only so much paid work to go around in an advanced economy. Since that time, articles have appeared in the popular media on the same theme repeatedly wondering if our future is one without workers.

This goes against the trends that we’ve noted which show that workers should, if anything, become more valuable in the next few years – particularly after Baby Boomers start retiring en masse in 2017. But more expensive workers are even more likely to be replaced by machines than cheap ones. Worse, there are signs that the basic skills necessary to be a high-value worker are on the decline, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

What a "job" used to mean for many.

What a “job” used to mean for many.

What happens if there is not enough work to go around? As the Industrial Revolution progressed, one of the key features was the development of the standard 40 hour workweek. Over 100 years ago, it was common for employees to put in as much as 12 hours per day, 6 days a week, especially if they were valuable skilled workers in areas like steelworking. Unions organized and limited the hours required, giving us the weekend as we know it.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but more valuable workers are usually the first ones to organize and demand both better pay and shorter hours. A world where machines work is likely to mean that people don’t – but wages have to rise to make the difference if there is to be no decline in living standards. A 32 hour workweek (4 days) would create 20% more jobs but necessitate a 20% rise in pay to keep everything even.

This places a higher demand on basic skills and education, however, in addition to a huge social change in the nature of what we call “work”. In the Burger King example there is always a need for a manager to keep everything running and control the crowds – in addition to a mechanic that keeps the machines operating. There are still jobs for humans, but they are more technical and demanding – and the productivity per employee justifies better pay.

Workers of the world Unite - it is one big economy, after all.

Workers of the world Unite – it is one big economy, after all.

But there is only one historically proven way for workers to regain the upper hand against technology, and it is organizing. Throwing your shoes into the works isn’t good enough. It takes skills and determination – and a shortage of replacements waiting for their chance.

If Barataria is right about the net shortage of workers after 2017, into the next boom, we can see how things might change from there. Robots will likely take up the slack, but workers will have to be the net beneficiaries as the relationship between people and work changes. That frees up people to have better lives, raise their kids, and continue their education – making everyone gradually more valuable and making a much higher hourly rate well worth it for everyone.

But getting from here to there is not going to be easy. This can and should be the focus of a genuine Progressive movement – to embrace the changes that are coming to free people and make robots do the work.

This article is a synthesis of many past articles and work from popular media.  Follow the links for more information on any topic, and please join the discussion below.  The future is a place we’re all going together, so let’s make it work for all of us!

36 thoughts on “Redefining Work

  1. Hey there, this was extremely well written and presented. It adds fuel to my own arguments, we will be replaced, but will someone pay us to let machines do the work? I don’t see our society making the change. All I see is the possibility of replacement by our own creations.

    • Thanks! More than anything I hope we can talk about this. I wanted to present the positive case, which is to say what we can do to counter a problem – the way it was done before.

  2. We can always use more lawyers, writers, and political people. We need child care workers.
    Plus we need girlfriends and wives who are less demanding. We need world peace. We need better rhythm sections in bands. Poetry has no limits. Hip hop music is limited though.
    We need more police so there is less crime. We need more judges. We need more teachers and janitors. We need more people to trumpet the sheer beauty of South Minneapolis. We need an army to shut down St. Paul and bored it up. St. Paul is full of itself like a 25 year old.

    We need more need more bloggers to talk about all secret subjects you don’t cover on Barataria.

    We need actors for 60 shades of gray.

    We need more movie reviewers.

    We need people to recycle the old computers. We need interviewers to help to do our biographies before we die at age 60, if godd genes aren’t our strong suit.

  3. Of course, there is one small problem for Burger King in the interim of wating for 2017. They won’t be able to get machines to pay for and eat their meat slurryburgers. Perhaps they’ll have to solve the problem by paying real people to eat them. The only surprise is why they don’t have to pay them already.

    • So …. you don’t like them? 🙂 I was thinking of an example from Japan’s vending machine culture, but I wanted something more US based. I’m sure I can come up with other examples.

    • That is definitely a requirement. I think Sen Warren is getting it started, at least! The politics probably will happen last, as it usually does, so look for a movement first.

  4. Excellent post and quite on point for the coming trends in “working”. We are close to a “sea change” in the nature of humanity and work. In the near future there will simply be much less work to do for most humans. One might almost think that this is true today and therefore the great need of nations, most assuredly ours, to maintain large military establishments and to create reasons for conflicts. Could the US withstand the chaos of out of work ex-servicemen if we were to bring all the troops home? Technology will shrink the need for many “jobs” except the most basic labor. The very nature of community, society and country will change. In our current state of artificial partisan conflict I don’t know how this could play out positively, but play out it must. As an old codger of 70 I have lived through massive change and while I’ve mostly embraced it, I can’t say that my “embrace” was not and is not, conflicted with bemusement. I believe that the changes I’ve experienced in my lifetime will be miniscule in comparison to those faced by my children and grandchildren. As someone who has always been somewhat of a futurist, given my lifelong addiction to science fiction, I view the future to be experienced by humanity as fraught with more peril than possibility. The necessary change is nothing short of a rapid social evolution of humanity and given how much of our society is currently controlled by sociopaths, I’m not sure we won’t self-destruct.

    • Thank you for your comments. I do agree there is a lot more peril as we move ahead than I certainly have talked about here. I wanted to present the case for how we will have to get a handle on the changes and make them work for us. It may not happen at first, and there may be a lot more upheaval before we get to where we need to be. Look at all the people that died in riots before unions were accepted, for example! That may well happen again. But I see the change as ultimately moving us from a world based on want to a world based on excess. Marx had a lot to say about this, and it is interesting.

  5. Progress is perennial. Times are changing. Man, no doubt, must accept change and move forward if he does not want to be left behind. However, if there is no future for his peaceful existence all due to technological progress, then it makes one wonder if the future belongs to the machines! Such a scenario is shocking, yet not far from becoming a reality. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  6. How would you enforce a shorter workweek? Some people would still work 40 hours if they had the chance. You could make that overtime but so many people are salaried or contract it makes no sense really to regulate hours.

    • I think the law and social practice mesh with each other. You are right that 40 hours as the law means less than it did before, but people still look to it as a standard. Both must change together – you can’t just legislate social change!

  7. There will always be some low skills jobs for people who aren’t cut out for high skills ones but there are less all the time. If we had more manufacturing it would be better all around for both groups. What do you think of the future of manufacturing in this scenario?

    • We simply will not have manufacturing growth until there is a weaker US Dollar. I don’t see that happening for a solid decade at this rate. Nothing is stepping up to replace it yet. But I would like to see that, yes. After we adjust to shorter workweeks, that is, because a strong dollar makes a lot of that easier to do.

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