by Barry Edelson
Become a Patron


The End of Labor As We Know It

The American philosopher Mortimer Adler once said, "Anything a machine can do human beings should not do." It should hardly be surprising that Adler was born in 1902, in an age when the power of machines was still a source of wonder, and their potential to relieve people of tedious labor was a highly desirable dream. In retrospect, the idea that machines would lead to human lives of unprecedented ease and leisure seems hopelessly utopian. The washing machine, vacuum cleaner and other household devices have certainly freed countless millions of people, mostly women, from a life of ceaseless drudgery. But in business, machines destroy employment every bit as much as they create it. The plough is replaced by the tractor, moveable type by digital publishing, hand tools by robots. Automation is directly responsible for the mass disappearance of many kinds of jobs, each generation losing out to the machinery that comes along in the next. In every cycle of losses, there is widespread economic dislocation, which in turn leads to serious social and political consequences.

In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin takes this argument one step further, demonstrating that computer technology has actually increased the amount of time we spend taking care of routine chores. At first, it's wonderful to be able to do one's banking online, make one's own travel plans and shop for all and sundry, but the bottom line is that we are now performing many humdrum tasks that we used to pay other people to do. What we save in dollars we are paying for in hours. The time it takes to keep our lives in order via the Internet continues to grow, as does the effort spent on continually maintaining and upgrading all of our devices. Technology has thus not only eliminated jobs on the factory floor, it has also sacrificed them throughout the service sector. The bank teller, travel agent and shop clerk are all endangered species. If we take care of these jobs ourselves, we just don't need these people any more. There's no free lunch.

The problem is anthropological, as well. Those who believe in the transformative power of machines fail to see that rapid advancements in science and technology inevitably outrun the drastically slower progress of society and culture. It is preposterous to suppose that human nature could keep pace with lightning fast changes in modes of living, as if personal ambition and the work ethic, ingrained in our beings through eons of struggling to survive, would magically evaporate once survival becomes easier. It's all very well for an academic philosopher like Adler, whose own thoughts presumably kept him occupied from dawn to dusk every day, to imagine a paradise of dialogues and seminars, untroubled by thoughts of gathering food and building shelter. But what on Earth are the tenant farmer and the bricklayer to do with themselves? Humanity has shown no predilection as of yet for providing a free living to all of its members, allowing everyone to lounge away their lives with no effort expended on their own upkeep. (Though a few countries have mooted the concept of a "guaranteed basic income", it has yet to be put into practice anywhere.) On the contrary: there is deep resentment against those who do not labor on their own behalf. Those who don't work are disdained, while the well-to-do are admired in proportion to their entrepreneurial spirit. We hold no grudge against those, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, whose business acumen brought great benefits to society. We have less regard for those who, like financiers, earn their fortunes by cleverly manipulating the fortunes of others and don't "make" anything tangible. Still, even the hated bankers sacrifice their time and health in the pursuit of money. A special animosity is reserved for the trust-fund baby whose inherited privilege, like that of the aristocrats of old, bears no relation to merit or ability.

Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the 21st Century, undertakes a comprehensive study of this shift from inherited to earned wealth. He studied the accumulation of wealth and patterns of income from the 18th century through the present day, and found that while economic inequality is more or less constant through the ages, the methods by which wealth is accumulated have changed significantly in modern times. To be sure, great fortunes are sometimes still passed down within families, but they tend not to last for as many generations as they used to. In the past hundred years, a class of global "super managers" has replaced the landed gentry as the primary holders of capital. In the 19th century, nearly all wealthy noblemen and aristocrats were "rentiers", that is, they lived entirely off the interest from investments. In a centuries-long period of low economic growth and no inflation, it was not uncommon for an English gentleman and several generations of his descendants to live luxuriously on the steady income from government bonds alone. Today, the vast majority of people of great wealth earned it through business or finance.

Disparities in the ownership of capital, which are currently approaching levels not seen since the Belle Epoque prior to World War I, are the result mainly from variations of income, rather than inheritance. What has not changed over time is that people on the top of the income scale hoard most of the wealth for themselves, while those in the bottom half own practically nothing. The modern era has witnessed the emergence of a "patrimonial middle class", which Piketty describes as those outside the "one percent" of wealthiest individuals but above the 90th percentile. This group is analogous to the "upper middle class" described by Richard Reeves in his recent book, Dream Hoarders, though he moves the scale down a bit to include the top 20 percent. In any event, it is clear that a great many more people other than the super rich have, through their own efforts, gathered modest but significant amounts of capital for themselves, and learned to hold onto it. Once inside the top 20 percent, few slip back to a lower level. This is not accidental, according to Reeves: through residential zoning, college admissions and job prospects, the upper middle class have rigged the system to ensure that they and their children have a leg up on everyone else. While nominally meritocratic, our economic system essentially eliminates many at the bottom from competition by simply not allowing them into the game. Arguments rage about who exactly constitutes the "middle class": most Americans identify themselves as such, but it is self-evident that we can't all be in the middle. There is little dispute that most people, even in the richest countries, still own almost nothing. As mobility declines, according to Reeves, they have increasingly limited prospects of climbing above the lower rungs of the economic ladder, where the misfortune of not having had the right parents has placed them.

As Jobs Go, So Go Our Towns

The reality on the ground is plain to see. Consider one small town in upstate New York, once a model of economic promise, now a shadow of its former self.

Glens Falls
It's never going to look like this again

In the middle of the last century, Glens Falls so typified small-town life that it was nicknamed "Hometown USA" by Look magazine in 1944. Originally built on the success of paper mills, which exploited the vast woodlands of the Adirondack Mountains just to the north, the economy diversified in the early 20th century as several large insurance companies established offices in town. The community prospered accordingly. There was a vibrant little downtown, including some rather upscale clothing, jewelry and furniture stores, a movie theater, hospital, public library, and an art museum, with pretty residential neighborhoods spreading out in all directions. After World War II, with the advent of the state university system, a community college was built on the outskirts of town, down the road from the small airport. And when the interstate was built, Route 87 ran just outside the city limits, making it more accessible to the rest of the region than ever before. There were even minor league baseball and hockey teams. The future seemed bright and assured.

Then, in the 1970s, Glens Falls got malled.

At first, the new Aviation Mall in neighboring Queensbury was small, but over the years it greatly expanded, and an entire rival commercial area rose up steadily around it. Strip malls, big box stores and factory outlets eventually outstripped the downtown area in size and variety. Inevitably, the city's downtown economy declined. One by one, the banks, clothing stores and other shops that had anchored the city center for decades closed. The five-and-dime stores went the way of five-and-dimes everywhere. The minor league franchises moved elsewhere. Even the statewide high school basketball championship recently found a more suitable location, abandoning the civic arena which had hosted the event for a very long time. Many stately homes, no longer affordable for most local residents, have been renovated as office space.

To be sure, the city didn't collapse into a ghost town. The hospital grew into the leading medical facility in the region, bringing a sizable local health industry along with it. The art museum, with its small but impressive original collection, was expanded. Some insurance companies still keep back offices in town. But the downtown has never recovered from the losses of the 1970s and 1980s, despite well-intentioned efforts to stem the decline. A beautiful renovation and expansion of the library, the conversion of an old Woolworth's into a theater, and the arrival of several noteworthy restaurants, have not been enough to bring Glens Falls back to the economic level it once occupied. It is hard to imagine that anyone in town expects the city to return to its former modest glory.

And now, with the rise of online shopping, the Internet is doing to the mall what the mall did to downtown. Customers are in short supply. Many stores are now empty, their storefronts boarded up. The food court is down to a single Chinese take-out. No one understands how Sears, one of the remaining "anchor" stores, manages to stay open at all.

Those of us who never warmed to the mall in the first place cannot help but experience a bit of schadenfreude over the prospect of its demise. One is inclined to intone uncharitably, "Isn't karma a bitch?" But while greedy mall developers may have had it coming, the many people whose livelihoods depend upon the mall most assuredly do not. The magnitude of the problem across the country lays bare the fundamental cruelty of capitalism's "creative destruction". Quite a few American malls have gone under already, left to the ravages of the weather and the weeds. More are certainly going to follow. Manufacturing has heard this song before, first when factories absconded from north to south in search of cheaper, mostly non-union labor, and then a few decades later, skipped out of the country altogether. So much for patriotism. We know only too well about all the companies that are barely hanging on, in industries that no longer serve a useful purpose. No one can reasonably argue that obsolete enterprises (e.g., coal mines), and those that have escaped oblivion thanks only to the taxpayers' largesse (e.g., automobile manufacturers), ought to live on indefinitely if they can no longer stand on their own. But spare a thought for the innocent workers, and tell them where they are supposed to find comparable employment.

We are asked to believe that "retraining" will help displaced workers find their way in a changing economy. But in a place like Glens Falls, where departing companies are either permanently shuttered or are replaced by industries that pay far lower wages, retraining is largely futile. There are few high-tech manufacturing jobs within driving distance — people in the North Country are accustomed to commuting very long distances — and even if there were, there would not be nearly enough of them to compensate for the large numbers of low-skill jobs that are continually being shed. A microchip factory did open a few years ago about 25 miles away, but with similar labor problems throughout the region, residents of Glens Falls have had to compete for those jobs with a vastly larger pool of applicants across the capital region surrounding Albany.

We also suppose that primary and secondary education can help solve this problem, by better training students for the technological workplace of the future. This sounds logical but is, on closer inspection, thoroughly impractical. At an education conference a few years ago, a superintendent of an upstate New York school district laid this argument bare with a concrete example: A man born at the turn of the 20th century who retired 65 years later as a jet engine mechanic. When he came into the world, the Wright brothers had not even flown their first plane. What could he have possibly learned in school in 1905 or 1915 that would have prepared him for the career he ultimately pursued? What technical skills that were pertinent in the first years of the 20th century were useful or relevant in the last? Educators in the classical mold might answer that he learned the most important skills of all: to read with insight, to think critically, to work analytically, to play cooperatively. In other words, he learned to use his mind, to get along with others, and to be resourceful. In this era, when technology changes hourly, the educational mission to impart particular technical skills is even more meaningless than it was when the jet engine mechanic was a child.

Superfluous, and Learning to Love It

This leaves our low-wage worker nowhere. It seems laudable for community colleges to work with local companies to teach real-world skills that can land students a job when they graduate. What happens, though, in five or ten years when the technology moves on, the company goes under, and no one else is looking for that particular set of skills? We could make a commitment to retrain people throughout their working lives, and this would likely render the careers of many working people more viable. But it ignores the scale of the labor calamity that is staring us in the face. The reality is already well-established: the high tech economy needs many fewer workers than historical manufacturing once did. At its peak in the 1970s, General Motors employed 850,000 people worldwide, more than 600,000 in the United States alone. Google today employs little more than 70,000. Amazon, which is atypical of technology companies because it handles a lot of physical stuff, still has only about 300,000 employees, many of them part-time. Even GM's work force is down 80 percent from its high-water mark, thanks mostly to automation. It goes without saying that the hourly wage of those who staff Amazon's fulfillment centers cannot compare to that of Michigan's assembly line workers of the mid-20th century. Inevitably, their jobs will be replaced by robots, too.

The problem of displacement will only get worse in the years to come, as automation gets even more sophisticated and wipes away even more occupations. It will not be long before cashiers and truck drivers go the way of elevator and telephone operators. By some estimates, half of all existing occupations could disappear because of automation in the decades to come. If the society doesn't need these jobs any longer, so be it. No one should have to endure the tedium of mindlessly repetitive tasks if they don't have to. But what about the people doing those jobs? Would we be comfortable with the idea of millions of our fellow citizens living on the permanent government dole? Can we really imagine most people having nothing more to do than strolling to the town square every morning to hear some modern-day Socrates holding forth? Would working people even be content with such a life? We are long accustomed to the reality of the idle rich, who are few in number and provide fodder for gossip and ridicule. But we have not begun to contemplate an entire society of the idle ex-employed. In theory, it ought not matter to us if people work if they do not have to, but the Calvinist in all of us bristles at the thought of human beings lounging around like grazing cattle from birth to death. Many of those who win the lottery actually continue to work, at least for a while, so habituated are they to the routine of daily employment. We find that attitude simultaneously absurd and admirable. It's not that most people like their monotonous, mind-numbing jobs, but simply don't know what else to do with themselves. Perhaps as many people dread retirement as look forward to it; quite a few have to be turned out against their will at a certain age.

Sociologists and philosophers will no doubt argue that this is merely because we have never learned to live any other way. Even if this is so, it would take an unprecedented cultural revolution to transform human society from labor to leisure. In the interim, expect more people on the bottom half of the income ladder to spend their entire working lives in fast food and other low-wage occupations. Expect millions more Americans added to the rolls of the permanently disabled, not because they are unable to work, but because there isn't any work for them to do any more. And expect the culture wars to rage unabated, as those whose self-respect is defined by their daily toil look for scapegoats for their vanishing opportunities — immigrants, foreign trade, feminists, "the elite" — and as so-called leaders oblige them by offering an endless stream of simplistic solutions to a complex and intractable problem.

Perhaps someday we may stumble into a more enlightened way of living, in which a full-time job is no longer the measure of a person's worth. On the other hand, as the English used to say, if I am a gentleman and you are a gentleman, who will take out the trash?

September 4, 2017


Become a Patron

Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.