Two postscripts to What kind of world is likely/do we want?

1. Lessons from history.

Does humanity serve technology? Or does technology serve humanity?

History books tell us that during the 19th century Industrial Revolution, the workweek could extend to 80 hours or even more. Those same books painted a gruesome picture of working conditions at the time. Here’s a brief summary excerpted from today’s Wikipedia:

“Child labour existed before the Industrial Revolution but with the increase in population and education it became more visible. Many children were forced to work in relatively bad conditions for much lower pay than their elders,10%-20% of an adult male’s wage. Children as young as four were employed. Beatings and long hours were common, with some child coal miners and hurriers working from 4am until 5pm. Conditions were dangerous, with some children killed when they dozed off and fell into the path of the carts, while others died from gas explosions. Many children developed lung cancer and other diseases and died before the age of 25. Workhouses would sell orphans and abandoned children as “pauper apprentices”, working without wages for board and lodging. Those who ran away would be whipped and returned to their masters, with some masters shackling them to prevent escape. Children employed as mule scavengers by cotton mills would crawl under machinery to pick up cotton, working 14 hours a day, six days a week. Some lost hands or limbs, others were crushed under the machines, and some were decapitated. Young girls worked at match factories, where phosphorus fumes would cause many to develop phossy jaw. Children employed at glassworks were regularly burned and blinded, and those working at potteries were vulnerable to poisonous clay dust.”

By the 1950’s, the workweek had trended downwards, to 40 hours. At that time I was in high school reading all this. The son of a mathematician, I thought knew a little something about trends and extrapolation. I calculated that as technology continued to improve, taking more of the burden off the shoulders of labor, the workweek in the early 21st century (as in… about now), would be as little as 24 hours. I looked forward to adulthood in such a leisure-filled world.

My morale remained high until about the 1970’s, by which time it was becoming apparent that this sanguine outlook was failing to verify – an early lesson in the shortcomings of persistence forecasts.

Particularly chilling was a Business Week article of the 1970’s, which noted the date at which the salary for a European executive working in Europe passed that for an American executive working in Europe. I remember the heart-stopping bottom-line verbatim: “The comparison is worse than it sounds, because the European executive gets six weeks of vacation a year and is expected to take it, while the American executive gets three weeks of vacation a year and is fired if he takes it.”

We all know the reality of the last four decades. The nominal workweek for hourly workers has remained steady at 40 hours/week or nearly so; Many hourly workers are forced to settle for part-time hours, so that employers won’t have to provide healthcare or pension benefits. By contrast salaried/professional staff find their work hours increasing slightly. Among the higher executive ranks today, workweeks of 50-60 hours are not uncommon. The health dangers are no longer posed by unsafe industrial equipment, but rather by sedentary, stress-filled lifestyles.

Going back to that persistence forecast, there is a bright side to the story. If indeed the past is prologue, we know from the history that the horrific working conditions of the Industrial revolution (which originated in the logic that the new machines of the age were expensive and needed to be operated by skeleton crews for long hours every day) proved transitory. Both labor and management saw benefits to a shorter workweek, and it was accomplished.

2. People of the Single-Marshmallow now.

What kind of world do we want? The one that provides instant gratification in preference to rewarding patience. The famous Stanford experiment of fifty years ago is receiving a lot of play these days. In case you’ve been on Mars and missed it, here’s the background (an extended excerpt from an online article by Susan Beacham, simply one of many extant):

“The Marshmallow Study, conducted in the 1960’s by Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel, demonstrated how important self-discipline is to lifelong success. He started his longitudinal study by offering a group of 4-year-olds one marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for him to return after running an errand, they could have two marshmallows. The “errand” took about fifteen to twenty minutes. The theory was that those children who could wait would demonstrate that they had the ability to delay gratification and control impulse.

How important is your child’s ability to delay immediate gratification? (Very important.) Is self-discipline a predictor of a child’s success later in life? (Yes.) Can a child who does not know how to delay immediate gratification be taught this skill? (Absolutely.)

Ok. Let’s take a moment and think about the child in our lives before I give you the results of the study. Close your eyes, visualize your child in The Marshmallow Study room chair. Is she eating? Is he waiting? We all know exactly what our children will do – or do we?

Like any good habit, delayed gratification can be learned.About fourteen years later, when the children in the experiment graduated from high school, the Marshmallow Study revealed startling differences between the two groups: the children who waited and did not gobble up the single marshmallow, were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had developed the habits of successful adults. The habits, the centerpiece of which is delayed gratification, point to more thriving marriages, greater career satisfaction which leads to higher incomes, and better health.

The children who did NOT wait were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident. And, they were still unable to delay immediate gratification. Worse yet, these “one marshmallow” kids scored an average of 210 points less on SAT tests. Why? Distraction and the desire for instant gratification got in the way of good, focused study time. If not corrected, lack of impulse control will continue to trip these kids up throughout life, resulting in unsuccessful marriages, low job satisfaction and as a result low income, bad health and all around frustration with life.”

So much for the world that is coming if we take no deliberate action, and the world that we want. What kind of world is possible if we act effectively? We return to that question next.

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2 Responses to Two postscripts to What kind of world is likely/do we want?

  1. Bill:-

    Excellent series – plenty of meat to chew on.

    The nature of work IS changing; as you point out, technology plays a big role in that change, but it’s not the only factor. Any job that can be reduced to a set of rules is fair game for automation. However, perhaps far more important is the globalization of technology – we’ve seen low labor costs (and earlier adoption of robots) take jobs away from American workers, but now we’re seeing fracking and other advanced energy extraction technologies bringing manufacturing jobs back.

    The fact is that the globalization of technology means that that pendulum may swing back and forth several times; some estimate that the average American worker can now expect to change jobs about 10 times during their career. Less than 30% can expect to stay with the same employer 10 years or more; only 10% can expect to stay with the same employer for 20 years. How very different than when the American Dream was originally conceived! Then, unskilled jobs were always available; while there will always be unskilled jobs, they are becoming increasingly scarce (and require basic reading and writing skills), and an unreliable source of mass employment. This means that we have to teach our children to recognize change, and use the basic skills of learning to find ways to adapt, and perhaps even seize the opportunity inherent in change.

    For there are some jobs that are unlikely to be automated. Machines have no empathy – machines don’t care. As you and I begin our long day’s journey into night, it is not the gradual weakening I fear, but the isolation of growing old. Old friends with whom we’ve shared so much no longer there; the difficulty of getting out to make new friends in the face of increasing frailty. There are meaningful careers to be made in caring – simply helping the elderly (and the not so elderly but still infirm) and brightening the twilight of their lives.

    Machines also aren’t very creative, and don’t respond well to surprises. This means that there will always be a need for those who can create – artists, scientists, craftsmen – and for those who can “stop on a dime and give nine cents change” to their clients.

    We have to recognize – in our educational systems and in our everyday lives – that change is inevitable, and that the rate of change is increasing. We must prepare to live with change as our one constant.

  2. Thanks, John.

    Well said, thoughtful. As you might surmise from the later posts in this four-post mini-series, I’m actually sanguine about technology… and greatly appreciate your adding some real meat to the bones, especially with respect to fracking and the new social contract that has each of us working with several employers vs. just one or two over the career. As for the aging bit, I’ll be reflecting on that further.

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