Are we running out of work?

30/11/2011 § Leave a comment

Through a discussion group, I was sent to this New York Times op-ed that suggests we are running out of work. The current downturn and technological advance are combining to create a pool of surplus workers. This particular statement caught my eye:

In fact, if modern capitalism continues to eliminate as many jobs as it creates — or more jobs than it creates — future recoveries will not only add to the amount of surplus labor but will turn a growing proportion of workers into superfluous ones.

The vision is dystopian: the economy has less and less need of people, who will be sent to the scrap heap. There is a flip side. The utopian view is: we have less and less need to work, Hooray! Now we can engage our minds and hearts with philosophy and music and fulfulling human relations. This is the vision behind Walden, wherein Henry Thoreau explores how little work he has to do in order to get by (slacker!). It is also the vision behind the slightly more disturbing Walden Two: the society is organised by the big brain of B.F. Skinner to require only a few hours of work per day from each adult.

Both visions are wrong, though. The historical development of technology suggests that we find new things to do. If we go back to 1995, Jeremy Rifkin was warning of the ‘end of work’. New technologies were spelling the end of manufacturing and agricultural jobs. What happened next was the late 1990s, a boom period when unemployment fell and median wages rose. People were trying to figure out what to do with the new information and communication technology, and worked very hard at it.

The concern about the loss of work goes back much further. Karl Marx, for example, reviewed some of the history. In Capital, he cites an Indian Governor-General from the mid-19th century: ‘The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.’ He also goes back further to the 17th century ‘revolts of the workpeople against the ribbon-loom’ in present-day Germany.

I was always struck by Peter Earl’s explanation for why the utopian version hasn’t come to pass. Learning an instrument, for example, takes time. The time to master an instrument sufficiently to enjoy playing it hasn’t changed very much in the last 300 years. The Web, to be fair, gives one access to guitar tablature and tutor videos, and that makes it easier. But the way to Carnegie Hall is still ‘practice, practice, practice’.

Consuming things, however, has become much easier. It is much easier to sit in front of a plasma screen and play a video game than it was 300 years ago (well, you know what I mean). As the price of things has dropped relative to the price of doing, thinking, and practicing, we consume more things. That also means we need to produce more things. As the machines take over one type of production, we keep inventing new things to produce and new ways to produce them.

This centuries-long trend doesn’t take away from the real dislocation and strife of specific individuals whose jobs disappear. We can demand, as they did in Leyden, that ‘usus hujus instrumenti a magistratu prohibitus est’. History shows, however, that that approach only delays the inevitable. Better to understand what the new work is and how to support these individuals to participate in it.

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