Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century

Imagine standing on a cold factory floor. A long, seemingly endless line of dead chickens move in front of you and with a few deft slices of a large butcher knife you do your job. Eight hours a day. Five days a week. Not for just years but for decades. Standing in place in the cold, moving your arms in the same way day-in, day-out. After decades of this you end up in the doctor’s office with all types of repetitive motion stresses and injuries. Your joints are prematurely arthritic and raising your arms in front of you is becoming increasingly painful by the day. But you do what you must do for you and your family depending on you.

Or how about working on the factory floor of a textile mill changing bobbins. After decades of this your hands are gnarled and it’s almost impossible for you to open them in order to grasp the used bobbins and replace them with new ones. Your doctor orders your employer to give you two weeks of other duties while the joints in your hands and arms rest, but your boss decides that’s too much trouble. He fires you instead. It is unlikely at your age that you will ever work again, even if you weren’t disabled from the repetitive motions of every working minute of every working day for your adult life.

These jobs sound like hell to me, yet in both cases the actual workers who did them preferred doing their jobs than not. They were grateful for the paychecks, and the brighter futures they brought their families even at great cost to themselves. It would be nice if I could add that their children appreciated their sacrifice, got good educations and did well in life, but there is no way to know if that happened. In this economically depressed area of the South it is quite unlikely.

As the talk of jobs heats up during this election year, it’s important to remember that not all jobs are created equal. There are some, like chicken tender scorer and bobbin replacer, that demand to be not just outsourced to a foreign country but automated out of existence. No human regardless of his or her nationality should have to suffer the drudgery that these people endured over their careers. In a few decades these jobs might be automated out of existence but I wouldn’t count on it. It will take a lot of chicken tenders to justify the return on investment of a robot. Textiles have been automating for hundreds of years yet there are many jobs that have resisted including bobbin replacer. People have been doing that by hand since the dawn of the industry.

Then there is the issue of what comes afterward. What replaces these jobs? Watching the bubble continue to inflate in higher education, the solution isn’t college. All college does is shift the bar for getting a job higher. There are jobs being done today that require bachelors degrees that a generation ago made do with high school diplomas. As people continue to flood into higher education, it is only a matter of time before masters degrees and doctorates become prerequisites for jobs currently needing only a four year degree.

The trades would be a likely destination, but the problem there is immigration. As long as we have a porous border we will attract foreigners willing to work for much less than American citizens. It’s a shame because historically the trades guaranteed a decent middle class income for the majority of young people, while only the best and brightest went on to college. Salaries for experienced plumbers and electricians are still good, better than most white collar jobs requiring college degrees even, but immigrants are out-competing native Americans for the entry level positions in these fields. Eventually the number of semi-skilled and skilled immigrants will outpace the demand for jobs in the trades and salaries will fall.

Some might look at this as an opportunity to end the tyranny of work. Let those who have well-paying jobs pay for those who for whatever reason lack the opportunity of those jobs. Why should people work as chicken tender scorers when they can sit at home and receive money from the government? Perhaps we shouldn’t speak of jobs but of “meaningful work,” and those who don’t have it can quit and live financed by those who do perform a skill qualifying as “meaningful work.” Chicken tender scorers and bobbing replacers can live out their lives without suffering the pain of these jobs, while those who have jobs like teachers, doctors and lawyers pay a few dollars more each paycheck in taxes. This would not be as radical as it might appear at first glance. Low skill jobs tend to pay very little to begin with, and society already bears social costs such as poor parenting caused by the shift-work nature of these jobs, plus the cost of medical care borne by medicaid and later medicare since these jobs rarely offer private insurance. In the long-run it might be more cost-effective to pay these people to stay home, and their employers to replace them with robots.

Of course this raises the question: Do humans need to work? Perhaps a better question would be, in order to participate in society, do human beings need to contribute to it through paid work? These questions will become important as we move forward as a society into a post post-industrial world. Over the past 200 years we have gone from an agrarian-based economy, to one that was based on industry, followed by one based on services. Manufacturing is a former shadow of its self, and many services will either be offshored or automated within the coming decades. What happens then?

We accept as a given that able-bodied adults must work. It is an unwritten compact we have with society. Society flourishes as its individual members perform tasks that create and expand the society in which they occur. It levies taxes on that work to provide for shared services that benefit all. What happens when that agreement becomes dated through technological progress?

It is possible that, as Dan Pink wrote in his book Free Agent Nation, the post post-industrial society will resemble the motion picture industry on a grand scale. Jobs will be atomized, with individuals working as independent contractors together with others on large projects, then dispersing after the project is complete. This model resembles the way thousands of stylists, key grips, special effects producers and others in the film industry unite for a motion picture then scatter after it is finished, joining other projects with a completely different mix of workers and talent. This process is under way in information technology, where long-term contractors work on 6-18 month contracts at a company before moving on to their next position. The downside of this mode of work, however, is that Society is not ready for this change. Laws, retirement, and health plans are predicated on the old model of lifetime employment with a single employer, not job switching every few months or years. Moving an IRA isn’t easy, nor is maintaining continuity of health insurance. While it would be possible to better accommodate these types of workers, say by ending the tax deduction for employee health plans thereby de-linking jobs and health insurance, neither the federal nor state governments have shown the capacity yet to address these changes.

It is also possible that freed from the tyranny of “meaningless jobs” the former bobbin replacers and chicken tender scorers would work as volunteers in their community, contributing in a more positive way to society than performing their old jobs. But if we allowed these people to quit their jobs and accept welfare, how would we keep them off their couches? Doing so would require an unhealthy expansion of government into the individual’s life to guarantee that these folks did something productive with their time that would benefit the society that is paying to feed, clothe and house them. With more government comes less freedom – the classic tradeoff.

We are in the midst of a revolution, and like nearly all such dramatic changes throughout history, it’s nature will only become apparent in retrospect. But for some like the chicken tender scorer and the now unemployed (and unemployable) bobbin replace, the future cannot come soon enough.

UPDATE: Walter Russell Mead has a series on what he terms the “post Blue-model America.” This fourth installment in his series paints a bright vision of what an atomized, service-oriented workforce might look like.

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19 Comments

  1. Watcher of Weasels » Watcher’s Council Nominations – The Gipper’s Edition:

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  2. NoisyRoom.net » Blog Archive » Watcher’s Council Nominations – The Gipper’s Edition:

    [...] The Razor – Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  3. Trevor Loudon's New Zeal Blog » Watcher’s Council Nominations – The Gipper’s Edition:

    [...] The Razor – Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

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    [...] The Razor – Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  5. Watcher’s Council Nominations – The Gipper’s Edition | askmarion:

    [...] The Razor – Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  6. Watcher’s Council Nominations – The Gipper’s Edition | Virginia Right!:

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  7. Watcher of Weasels Council – The Gipper’s Edition | Maggie's Notebook:

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  8. Bookworm Room » Voting day at the Watcher’s Council:

    [...] The Razor – Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  9. Dave Schuler:

    I had this argument with Virginia Postrel five or six years ago. I don’t think that either she or Dr. Mead has ever heard of indirect production. The trend in work will not be in the direction of personal services but more varied and more deeply nested indirect production.

  10. The Weekly Strength |:

    [...] The Razor – Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  11. Watcher of Weasels News | Independent Sentinel:

    [...] The Razor – Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  12. Scott Kirwin:

    Dave
    Can you explain more on this? Or direct me to your discussions. Thanks!

  13. Watcher of Weasels » The Council Has Spoken!! This Week’s Watcher’s Council Results:

    [...] [...]

  14. This Week’s Watcher’s Council Results | therightplanet.com:

    [...] Third place t with 1 vote – The Razor- Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  15. NoisyRoom.net » Blog Archive » The Council Has Spoken!! This Week’s Watcher’s Council Results:

    [...] Third place t with 1 vote – The Razor – Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  16. Trevor Loudon's New Zeal Blog » The Council Has Spoken!! This Week’s Watcher’s Council Results:

    [...] Third place t with 1 vote – The Razor – Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  17. Ah-ha! |:

    [...] Third place t with 1 vote – The Razor- Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

  18. Pj:

    Scott – You forget another alternative: To live off dividends from investments, whether it is from shares, land or direct investment in a business enterprise. This is a perfectly respectable and an often overlooked alternative between the binary “either work or welfare.” Most people seem to think this is only available for the trust-fund kids, but the reality is that it is very possible for many to do this if one lives a modest lifestyle and tends the portfolio/land/rental property/whatever. This leaves time to pursue whatever interests you like. That’s how you pull yourself up from the “tyranny of work.”

  19. Bookworm Room » Watcher’s Council winners for February 10, 2012:

    [...] Third place t with 1 vote – The Razor- Automate This – The Nature of Work in the 21st Century [...]

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