The future of work.

When I was in high school and studying history, I made an electrifying discovery. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the length of the workweek had been declining. Our history text suggested that as textile mills and the like came into being, workers had initially been forced to put in 70-80 hours a week. They got no days off. Even children were pressed into service. But as the industrial revolution had matured, there had been a corresponding decline in the number of hours expected of laborers. By the 1950’s, 40-hour workweeks… and weekends… had become the norm. Child-labor laws delayed the entry of children into the workplace and allowed them to add years to their schooling. For a kid growing up in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, where most people were earning a living by working in one of Pittsburgh’s many steel mills or perhaps one of the Westinghouse plants fabricating big power generators or elevators, this was exciting stuff.

The history book made mention of a social institution called labor unions, but that bit rather blew by me. What grabbed my attention instead was that advances in technology were improving worker productivity. With each passing year, fewer hours of labor were required to produce a given amount of product… cloth or steel or automobiles or light bulbs. I knew how to extrapolate trends, and figured that over the course of my career, full time work might come to mean as little as 24 hours a week. We’d work three days and our great productivity would enable all of us to live high off the hog the next four days. We’d all have virtually unlimited leisure.

Boy, was that wrong.

The focus on technology and productivity failed to take account of the social dimension to living on the real world. Powerful social forces have driven the world in a different direction. For example, those holding the reins of capital have noted that labor has become relatively expensive. You and I are limited physically and mentally. We tire. We need frequent respite. We’re easily distracted and prone to error. We can work only so long. We require health care, and we demand pensions, and a measure of job security/stability, so that we can plan out our lives.  We can easily get grumpy or discontent. By contrast, computers and machines and robotics are docile, indefatigable, uncomplaining, willing to work to the point of (readily forecastable) breakdown. As a result, a new social contract has emerged. Technology doesn’t simply serve us; it also competes.  Simply (and perhaps too harshly) put, you and I have jobs so long as we can match the productivity of machines (whose capabilities are continually improving).

This means that for those in knowledge work, the 70-80 hour work week has returned. It also means that some jobs are disappearing altogether. A few days ago, Lydia DePillis, writing for the Washington Post, noted the trend. In an article entitled Eight ways robots stole our jobs in 2013, Ms. DePillis provided this (slightly abbreviated) discussion of jobs in peril:

1. The people who mail stuff

Back in 2012, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, a maker of robots that can be programmed to pick up online orders in a warehouse and shuttle them to their departure points. The company now has 1,382 of the machines in three fulfillment centers, which means it eventually may not even have to hire the tens of thousands of temp workers it brings on for the busy holiday season…

2. The people who reheat pre-cooked food

The nationwide fast-food strikes brought dire warnings from restaurant industry-backed researchers that if line cooks cost too much, they could easily be replaced by robots…

3. The people who sell clothes

E-commerce has been steadily eating away at brick-and-mortar stores for years now, but what’s been cropping up more recently is a breed of business that sees taking retail out of the picture as a point of pride. American Giant, for example: The purveyor of basic, high-quality clothing makes its stuff just outside San Francisco, which it can do affordably because it sells to in-the-know urban sophisticates purely online, skipping the American Apparel-style marketing blitz altogether. That may mean you can get a high-quality, U.S.-made hoodie for a competitive price. It also means that the people who might otherwise have sold it to you don’t have jobs.

4. The people who stock shelves and return shopping carts

Not all labor-saving innovations are high-tech. The discount supermarket Aldi — which is owned by the same corporate parent as the more bourgeois Trader Joe’s — keeps payroll down by requiring a 25-cent deposit for shopping carts so employees don’t have to return them, and stocking shelves with boxes full of goods rather than placing the individual items in neat rows. Again, great for shoppers on a budget — at the cost of employment.

5. People who drive trucks

Autonomous vehicle technology is accelerating, and for now, is focused on passenger vehicles. But the real labor shortage is in long-haul trucking… a job that might be more safely filled by a remotely-controlled robot that never gets tired or lost. Which just means that the 5.7 million people who do the job now will have to find a new way to make a living.

6. People who operate farm equipment

The history of agriculture has been one long tale of automation, to the point where almost nobody works on farms in America anymore. The exception was supposed to be people who operated the machines that replaced people who tilled the soil and harvested the crops by hand. But even they’re not safe anymore, with the advent of tractors that can be piloted around the fields by computer or even programmed with the right coordinates and set loose, like a gigantic dirt-treading Roomba.

7. The people who make iProducts

After years of close scrutiny for the working conditions in its factories, Foxconn — which makes most of Apple’s computers, phones, and tablets — decided to swap people out for machines as much as possible. The process hasn’t been as quick or as easy as anticipated, but with wages rising in China, Foxconn has little choice but to keep cranking out the one-million-strong army of “Foxbots” it promised back in 2010.

8. The people who do low-level lab work

In North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, a company called LabCorp is hard at work developing machines to sort and split blood samples, which is just one of hundreds of thousands of menial laboratory jobs that pay decent money but could more efficiently be done by robots…

So much for jobs that are going to disappear. What about the more positive side? What jobs will be left? What will they look like? More on that in the next post.

A closing (musical) note. The idea of man being replaced by machine is nothing new. It’s perhaps never been better captured than through the old American folk hero and eponymous song, John Henry… the man who raced against a steel-powered hammer and won, only to die in the effort. (As the Wikipedia article lays out, whether John Henry was a real or merely a tale is open to interpretation.)

You really want to listen to the song. For the pure and yet clearly enunciated rendition, you might try Harry Belafonte. Some tastes might run more to the, longer, gussied up Johnny Cash version.

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One Response to The future of work.

  1. Michelle says:

    I haven’t read this book yet, but have heard good things about it. He’s a George Mason Univ professor and economist, Tyler Cowen, and focuses on the topic of inequality and the tech future:

    “Average is Over”
    http://www.amazon.com/Average-Is-Over-Powering-Stagnation/dp/0525953736

    David Brooks’ commentary on it:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/10/opinion/brooks-thinking-for-the-future.html

    I’ve read one other book by Cowen and he’s got an engaging style of writing.

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