Bracketing the scarcest weekend of the year, I’d like to talk today and Monday about the grim future. Work and Life. I actually went in thinking both pieces would be plain and grim, but I’m getting more upbeat about today’s piece. Thanks to Cece Azadi and Andrew Stallings for having these discussions elsewhere. Let’s see if I can get this out in under 1,000 words.
Work is in trouble in America. While the unemployment rate is struggling back to 5% by 2025, the workforce participation rate has been falling since 2002. The same proportion of Americans work at jobs now as in the 1960s. The funny thing is that women are coming into the labor force while men are leaving. There are fewer “Men’s Jobs” around in a post industrial economy. And more of those jobs can be automated anyway.
The future is automated. Anything that can be made into an app or a machine, will be. The cost of automation, capital, is always falling, as ingenuity is rewarded when it delivers greater value for less cost. The cost of labor is always rising, as people struggle to advance their lot and standing throughout their careers. Lately, income equality and income mobility have been dwindling in America. Our peer nations are Namibia and Uruguay, and we are less income equal than India. Mostly because of automation. The American worker is more productive than ever, as they have at their disposal an intricate, redundant and powerful web of infrastructure to allow them to do more with less. But there’s not a lot of need for new American workers in this scheme,
Since the first loom displaced the first weaver, or Maxim put a gas engine on a couple of bicycles, the human urge to assign toil to machines has been a powerful one. I could go even further back, and say that Mitochondria were better off inside cells than outside them, that Harvester Ants were better off with fungus than without, or that Chimpanzees using twigs to extract ants got a lot more food for a lot less effort than those that just dug up the whole angry stinging mound for their breakfast. The future is technological, and cheap.
More likely than a guaranteed living wage is a market supplying goods so cheaply that no one will care that their wages are crap. Food has famously gotten very cheap in America since we started manufacturing fixed nitrogen and automating the process of agriculture to take advantages of economies of scale over quality of food. The food produced by the food-industrial complex is certainly not as good as what oligarchs or upper middle class gentry ate 100 years ago, but much better than anything our great great-grandparents could afford to taste or even look at. Housing and transportation changed within the 20th century from a cash-basis to debt-financed market, allowing people to afford much more place and vehicle than they ever could before. This enabled many more people to own their homes and cars at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning, or at least “loan” them. Economies of scale and transportation logistics makes it cheaper to buy most goods. Whereas my great-great-great grandparents were lucky to own a table, a a chair and a bowl, I can nip down to the Ikea, Target or Wal-Mart and buy these things for less than a day’s pay. Clothing is now so cheap that I could pack only my laptop on flights, buying my clothes new once I get where I’m going. The cost would be less than the cost of checking a bag for the flights. Containerized Freight, developed rapidly between 1940 and 1960, makes it cheaper to ship goods from Shenzen to Chicago than from Chicago to Sheboygan.
So, this is great news, right? The problem is, of course, that there’s less for us to do as work in America. Most of the manufacturing jobs have been shipped to China. The only large manufacturing sector in America is home-building and other construction. As we all know now, that is susceptible to the volatile condition of the real estate market. We had it so good between 1950 and 1970, when we were the last economy standing after WW2. Not so much any more. Pittsburgh is much cleaner now, but with fewer, different jobs. Linfen is much dirtier now, with plenty of jobs. If you can stand them.
The arc of human history has been towards greater infrastructure, mechanization and safety. There are jobs we no longer have, and no longer want, like latrine cleaner, portcullis guard, and scribe. For these professionals, their work was their life, and they took pride in that work. All for naught. They were replaced by inground water/sewage/septic systems and the air gap, state and national political agreements and communications, and the word processor. The Luddites of 1811 and Saboteurs of 1728 were driven by the same sort of technological obsolescence to destroy the instruments of tautological wealth creation. Then, as now, it took money to make money, and machines were the ways to that money.
It was relatively easy to automate the warp and weft of textile making, less so for transportation, still less so for secretaries, further less for manufacturing, and it still remains a challenge to automate lawyering and doctoring. Then again, it took all of human history up until then to automate weaving, paving, cars, computers, logistics and CNC machines, or document search and discovery. No matter, all these things will be automated, the money’s too good for them not to be.
If the future is automated, then the next kind of jobs will be that which cannot be automated. I have no idea what that means, but I am sure that is the only way out.
The future is hazy on purpose (The Wire, 2003)