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[ 110 ] November 21, 2012 |

This is a request for reading suggestions.

I’m trying to think about the following problem: How are societies going to deal with a world in which labor for wages economic model that characterized the post-agrarian industrial age is increasingly breaking down? In other words, what is the future of work?

I realize this is a gigantic topic, so maybe it will help to give a a couple of examples of the kind of thing that’s triggered my puzzlement/curiosity:

(1) The market for getting paid to be a lawyer has been seriously constricted by forces such as machines doing what lawyers used to do, people who are not lawyers being paid (less) to do what lawyers used to do, do it yourself lawyering (LegalZoom etc), and globalization (people in other countries paid to do what before could only be done in the US (Pangea etc). Now if this were a problem peculiar to lawyers then the broader social consequences would be trivial. But it isn’t at all. One response I often get to my law school stuff is “what do you suggest we do instead?” It’s obviously a good question.

(2) Erik posted a few months ago about self-checkout machines at grocery stores. These machines lower transaction costs for consumers but they destroy jobs. What about a world in which everything is moving toward becoming a self-checkout machine?

I assume there must be all sorts of interesting things written about these questions. I just don’t know what they are, and would like to crowd source my initial research instead of paying an RA to do it.

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  1. Martin says:

    You should check in with Kevin Drum somehow. He’s been writing lately, within the last month or so, about how the down sides of automation and computers is going to become a huge topic in the years to come, and we’ve hardly started to grapple with it, etc.

    • Pinko Punko says:

      I seem to remember Yglesias saying that this kind of thing would just free people up to do something else, or I could just be inventing the kind of cobaggy thing he would say. Drum has been worried about this for awhile I think.

  2. Karl says:

    Global warming-forced no-growth economy…

  3. Dan Miller says:

    Peter Frase wrote a piece called Anti-Star-Trek that deals with this exact issue, from a very smart, very left perspective. You should definitely check it out. He’s elaborated on this in several places, so follow the tags on that post to see what else he’s done; a good summary is at Jacobin.

  4. bradP says:

    These machines lower transaction costs for consumers but they destroy jobs.

    Lower transaction costs generally mean more transactions, which in turn means more jobs.

    • Hanspeter says:

      Not if the ‘product’ of that transaction is something made by a machine.

    • Njorl says:

      You are mistaken to say “generally”. The proper adverb is “historically”.

      That’s the point.

      • bradP says:

        I don’t see why the trend wouldn’t continue. If customers have lesser transaction costs, it stands to reason they will spend that money they saved on greater consumption or investment which, it would seem, would mean more jobs.

        • Derelict says:

          Not really. If we stick with the supermarket model, the logical end state is for the supermarket to eliminate human cashiers once all of their customers are using self checkout. For the supermarket owner, the reduced transaction costs translate to higher profits, NOT lower prices for consumers.

          Hence, automation leading to fewer jobs.

          • Murc says:

            If we stick with the supermarket model, the logical end state is for the supermarket to eliminate human cashiers once all of their customers are using self checkout.

            Really, the logical end state is for a scanner of some sort to detect every item in my cart or on my person as I walk out the door and then bill me for it without any sort of what we’d recognize as a check-out being necessary.

            THAT’S something I could get behind. I’d love to literally be able to dash into the store for one item and dash out again without needing to interact with the whole money-changing-hands bit.

          • Observer says:

            Hence, automation leading to fewer jobs.

            John Henry was a steel drivin’ man…

        • Njorl says:

          First, you’re erroneously assuming that lower transaction costs will be passed on to consumers. That only happens when there are significant gains to be made in market share. If you can’t completely eliminate a competitor or prevent a new competitor from coming into existence, you’re better off taking the decreased transaction costs as profit. If you lower prices a tiny bit, your competitor will just follow suit, and you both lose money.

          • tt says:

            If you lower prices a tiny bit, your competitor will just follow suit, and you both lose money.

            But dropping prices first gives you the advantage. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma. That said, there’s no need to argue theory. Empirically, supermarkets aren’t able to retain much profit. This implies that most savings go to consumers.

            • Murc says:

              This implies that most savings go to consumers.

              Or being captured further down the production chain. One of the two.

            • ploeg says:

              Supermarkets are not the best example of how automation can cost jobs because it’s a competitive industry, because it’s hard to automate shelf stocking (yet), and because customers typically still want a traditional retail experience (where they look at the produce that they buy). And at least in the past, most industries have been like this, where competition meant that gains in efficiency were shared between capital, labor, and the consumer. The problem is when you reach the point the point where gains in efficiency go overwhelmingly to capital, and to a lesser extent to consumers, so that workers don’t make as much money at work and can’t stretch their dollars at the store. And over the last couple of decades, productivity gains have been going in that direction.

          • Yosemite Semite says:

            What happens to gains in productivity depend on a number of things. If there is only one firm (in the economic sense), that firm can retain all the productivity gains; it’s a true monopoly. If there are many firms competing in the same market AND there’s perfect information, the gains may go to consumers. With perfect information, all the consumers know where they can get the lowest price. The firms lower their prices to account for their new lower cost structure, and attempt to retain or increase their share of the market. In that case, all the productivity gains go to the consumers, their real income goes up, and instead of buying margarine, they now buy butter. Or two pounds of butter instead of one. Or take winter vacations in Hawaii. In the real imperfect world, some of the gains stay in the firm, with some going to its owners and some going to its workers, and some going to the consumers. Not equal shares go to all groups, to be sure. The Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank recently published a paper, What Happens to the Gains from Strong Productivity Growth?, which analyzes the distribution of gains among labor and capital. The distribution has changed over the years that the paper examines, and it has been unequal; the trend seems to be ratcheting more towards capital. (Academic; quants will be right at home in the formulas; heavy sledding.) What is clear is that there have been tremendous gains in the U. S. and that they have been widely distributed. The Dallas Federal Reserve Bank published a look at the gains in its annual report from some years ago (1997), Time Well Spent. (An easy read.)

  5. EthanS says:

    ” The market for getting paid … has been seriously constricted …

    …and would like to crowd source my initial research instead of paying an RA to do it.”

    Oh the irony….

  6. Linnaeus says:

    The future of work? Neofeudalism.

  7. Murc says:

    There are two sides to this, if I recall correctly, yes?

    The one side is that increased automation has been destroying jobs literally forever, and we’re usually okay because then we take the productivity that was previously being used doing stuff that is now automated and use it to do other things.

    The other side is that we’re approaching a unique threshold in which labor actually becomes straight-up unnecessary, because just about everything can be automated and we reach a point at which physical toil doesn’t actually add any value to society at all.

    I believe there are four scenarios involved for a post-labor economy, and they’re all combinations of post-labor, whether or not you’re post-scarcity, and whether or not capitalism is left in place.

    The nightmare scenario is a post-labor, non-post-scarcity, capitalist economy, which basically involves the 1% establishing fortress enclaves and hiring a small minority of the remaining 99% to be their private army to keep everybody else off of their resources until they starve to death.

    I completely forget where I read this, tho.

  8. Gareth Wilson says:

    These kinds of nightmare scenarios underestimate the power of the human brain. Take my last job, for example. It required no education or experience, and just involved knocking on doors and persuading people to take part in a radio ratings survey. The vast majority of native English speakers would have been able to do that job, and it’s utterly impossible to automate. Indeed, if you could create a robot capable of doing that, it would deserve human rights and a minimum wage too. Obviously that particular job can’t employ anyone, but there’s plenty of other examples of jobs that can’t be automated but don’t require any special talent or ability. Granted, some people will be unemployable due to low intelligence or poor social skills. But some people have always been unemployable.

    • Sean Peters says:

      I think it’s a mistake to assume that such jobs “can’t be automated”. To a large extent, they already have been: have you never received an automated survey call? Voice recognition technology is expanding by leaps and bounds, as is automated navigation in the real world. It’s not at all hard to imagine a robot that walks from door to door and asks questions.

      • Gareth Wilson says:

        I’ve never received an automated call of any kind – I’m not sure that they’re even legal in New Zealand. You certainly could automate the collection of information, but it’s persuading people to take part that’s the hard part. An obvious machine is going to be far less effective than a person.

        • Gareth Wilson says:

          Now that I think of it, I have received a pre-recorded advertising call. But there wasn’t any automation, just a taped monologue with contact information. I wasn’t interested in the product, but I can’t help thinking an actual person would have been more effective.

  9. MTB says:

    There’s a surprising amount of science fiction that has dealt with the issue of the breakdown of the current employment model. I would start with Mack Reynolds.

  10. e.a.f. says:

    self check outs at stores may lower costs for the store but it doesn’t lower costs for the consumer. I have yet to see one item at a lower cost once the self check out is installed. What these machines do is enable employers to increase their profits, that is all.

    These jobs, which are eliminated may not be the best paid jobs, but they are jobs which people need. Working for many isn’t just about making a salary but about their contribution to society, a sense of “belonging” to society.

    I refuse to use self check outs. They reduce the amount of jobs available. I prefer to see a real live person. I want the service–aging baby boomer with bad back. when financial institutions introduced bank machines, ATMs our fees didn’t go down, interest rates didn’t go down because the banks had less overhead. no banks made bigger profits & workers lost their jobs.

    In some cities in B.C. their are regulations in place which require all gas stations to have full service. Some cities don’t & they are all self serve. Both types of gas stations sell gas for the same price & there are plenty of gas stations in all the cities. I prefer the full service gas stations. I don’t have to get out of the car in lousy weather.

    If corporations continue to outsource & eliminate jobs we will have a very unhappy society & that which results from an unhappy society, especially in the USA which is a heavily armed society.

    • tt says:

      self check outs at stores may lower costs for the store but it doesn’t lower costs for the consumer.

      It’s really hard to believe this given how competitive the retail food market is in most places. Prices are determined by a number of factors and you can’t come to a conclusion like this just by your random impression of price trajectories.

      • Linnaeus says:

        Self-checkouts may reduce costs for the consumer (I’m not sure if they actually do, though it’s possible), but they do that by shifting labor to the consumer. So someone’s still doing the work.

        • tt says:

          Yep. To me, the most interesting thing about self-checkout is how unsuccessful it has been over the last decade. Of the 5 large supermarkets near me only one has self-checkout. So I suspect the overall efficiency gains are pretty small in most cases.

          • JoyfulA says:

            I think self-checkout works only for buying packaged items with bar codes. I generally have fresh fruit and vegetables; I’ve given up trying to use the self-checkout lines because I had to wait for the supervisor or clerk or whatever, who was helping someone else, to tell the machine that sign says $1/lb, not $3.99/lb, or resolve some other problem.

            • ajay says:

              I think self-checkout works only for buying packaged items with bar codes.

              Not in my experience. If you buy fresh fruit, you press the button for “bananas” or whatever on the screen, tell the machine how many you’ve bought, and there you go.

              Maybe self-checkout hasn’t spread very fast in the US (compared to the UK) because your self-checkout machines aren’t as good as ours. Or maybe there’s less of an advantage to the supermarkets to switching, because you pay your workers much less. It’s very widespread indeed over here.

              • MarcusVAgrippa says:

                You don’t think that has to do with the glut of express, city, bijou and what-not versions of supermarkets in the UK? Self-checkout in the places I have access to is not designed for larger numbers of items. What bugs me about it is the poorly designed flow of people between the different types of tills (since everyone has to pass through the same bottlenecks), and the cacophony of “unexpected item in bagging area”. But that may be just me.

                • ajay says:

                  You don’t think that has to do with the glut of express, city, bijou and what-not versions of supermarkets in the UK?

                  Not directly, because I’ve seen it in larger supermarkets as well.

              • djanglermust says:

                Maybe british people are just more law-abiding, because the first thing I thought reading that is “how is this not a license to steal bananas?”

        • Bill Murray says:

          As Patton Oswalt said, they got all of my letters where I said, “I want to be a checkout clerk”. But I don’t know how much kumquats cost

          http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/supermarket-self-checkouts-being-replaced-with-people/

    • Richard says:

      I haven’t been to a full service gas station in over a decade and, in California, I’m not sure there are any left. I haven’t missed them at all.

      As far as ATMs go, sure it didn’t lead to lower interest rates or to lower bank fees. What it did do was make my life easier and decreased the amount of time that I would spend in teller lines to get some cash or make a deposit. I could use that time to either work more or do something I enjoyed more, even if was only watching tv, than waiting in bank lines.

      • Malaclypse says:

        I haven’t been to a full service gas station in over a decade and, in California, I’m not sure there are any left.

        Here’s a funny thing. Youngsters think “full service” means they pump your gas. Old folks know that that describes “Mini-service.” “Full service” means that they pump your gas, clean your windows, and check your oil and air pressure.

        • Linnaeus says:

          Oregon doesn’t allow self-serve gas stations, so pretty much every station there is “mini-serve”. I didn’t know what that meant at first, since I also thought that “full serve” meant someone pumps your gas – they would check oil, etc. but typically only if the customer requested it. But then my parents reminded me that when they were kids, filling station attendants did a lot more.

        • Richard says:

          I also haven’t seen a mini-serv station in California in over a decade. I’ve pumped my own gas at every station I’ve been to for over twenty years since for a while, California had full serve pumps for about twenty cents a gallon more than self-serve. Every gas station in California, at least in the big cities, is self serve

    • Murc says:

      They reduce the amount of jobs available. I prefer to see a real live person.

      You know, it took me awhile to realize that this was why I actively sought out self-checks.

      It wasn’t that they were faster; with a certain amount of items they were, but marginally. It was because given the choice between dealing with the surly teenager on the register (full disclosure: at one point I was that surly teenager) and doing it myself, I preferred to do it myself. Especially if I was buying any items that I might potentially be embarrassed about.

      I’m not sure what that says about me.

      • Linnaeus says:

        I tend to avoid self-checkout lines because I don’t think they actually save me that much more time. I often have to rescan items, rebag them, etc. The experienced checkers don’t seem to have that problem.

        • Midwest_Product says:

          UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA. PLEASE WAIT FOR AN ATTENDANT.

          I still prefer the self-checkout, though, not for time savings but to avoid having a stranger (sometimes two strangers) touch my food.

          I hate, hate, hate having someone else bag my groceries.

          • Linnaeus says:

            I hate, hate, hate having someone else bag my groceries.

            See, I’m totally cool with that. One less thing that I have to do and would probably not do as well as the checker or bagger would.

          • Njorl says:

            I like to rub my food against strangers when they’re not looking.

          • ajay says:

            UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA. PLEASE WAIT FOR AN ATTENDANT.

            This is always infuriating because the item is something like a tin of tuna or a bread roll. You’re a supermarket checkout machine. Tins of tuna should be expected. “UNEXPECTED ITEM” should be something like a Fabergé egg, or a wombat, or a hand grenade.

      • ploeg says:

        I find that self-checkout lines are slower but reduce the number of scanning mistakes in the store’s favor, and I can bag my stuff however I see fit.

    • Gareth Wilson says:

      So how do you feel about supermarkets themselves? They employ fewer people than a equivalent combination of general store, greengrocer, and butcher, don’t they?

      • Njorl says:

        Supermarkets were a genuinely more efficient system. Self-checkout is the merchant getting me to do more labor so he can pay employees less. Self checkout isn’t more efficient. It’s just more profitable.

        • chris says:

          This. In fact, because of the experience differential, it’s actually LESS efficient — I waste more of my own time than I would have taken up of the employee’s, and while I personally am not a neurosurgeon or some other hyper-valuable specialty, some people are and they waste just as much time as I do on the self-scanners, if they ever use them.

          Anyway, I thought this problem was already well described by Baumol — what happens is that a few industries can’t improve their productivity as much through technology, and more and more labor ends up in those industries (which end up relatively more and more expensive, but since production costs are dropping in the easily-automated sectors, it’s potentially a wash, depending on your political system and what kind of distributional effects it will permit).

      • djanglermust says:

        In what way does it become less time-consuming to stock cans and apples because they’re being stocked in one large building rather than three smaller ones?

  11. Jonathan says:

    Read Judge Dred. The movie was shit but the graphic novel dealt specifically wit hthe effects of mass unemployment due to increasing automation.

  12. I’m not sure if this qualifies as serious information on the subject, but a pre-fame Paul Krugman wrote an article for the Times magazine speculating about the economics of 2100:

    http://mit.edu/krugman/www/BACKWRD2.html

    Some passages that seem pertinent:

    “When something becomes abundant, it also becomes cheap. A world awash in information will be a world in which information per se has very little market value. And in general when the economy becomes extremely good at doing something, that activity becomes less rather than more important. Late 20th-century America was supremely efficient at growing food; that was why it had hardly any farmers. Late 21st-century America is supremely efficient at processing routine information; that is why the traditional white-collar worker has virtually disappeared from the scene.”

    And:

    “Why should a student put herself through four years of college and several years of postgraduate work in order to acquire academic credentials with hardly any monetary value? These days jobs that require only six or twelve months of vocational training — paranursing, carpentry, household maintenance (a profession that has taken over much of the housework that used to be done by unpaid spouses), and so on — pay nearly as much as one can expect to earn with a master’s degree, and more than one can expect to earn with a Ph.D.”

    And, of course, the punchline:

    “But celebrity, though more common than ever before, still does not come easily. And that is why writing this article is such an opportunity. I actually don’t mind my day job in the veterinary clinic, but I have always wanted to be a full-time economist; an article like this might be just what I need to make my dream come true.”

    • ploeg says:

      More from Krugman here and here.

    • Linnaeus says:

      From the linked article:

      If you want to devote yourself to scholarship, there are now only three options (the same options that were available in the 19th century, before the rise of institutionalized academic research). Like Charles Darwin, you can be born rich, and live off your inheritance. Like Alfred Wallace, the less fortunate co-discoverer of evolution, you can make your living doing something else, and pursue research as a hobby…

      My path as a scholar (to the extent that I can call myself that) is very, very likely to follow the Alfred Wallace path. It’s becoming more and more true of other folks I know who went into graduate school. So we may not even need to wait until 2100. We’re already time warping back to the 1800s.

  13. BigHank53 says:

    Here’s one place to start:

    http://toomuchonline.org/

    You’ll probably want to at least skim some of Samuel Bowles’ writing:

    http://www.santafe.edu/about/people/profile/Sam%20Bowles

  14. UserGoogol says:

    Seems like the sort of thing that can be solved through mere incremental reform. As more and more people become unemployable, you incrementally expand the welfare state to cover such people. If things lead to the point of automation doing everything, then everyone will get all of their income from such welfare, and we can all live in a glorious robotic utopia. If things don’t go to such extreme levels, and new jobs emerge, then you can keep those welfare programs merely in safety net territory.

    Also, a basic income guarantee. Giving everyone a baseline sum of money is easier to gradually grow and shrink and is also just a nice way to do welfare programs for other reasons.

    • tt says:

      I think this is the right approach from a policy perspective. The problem is that technology isn’t destroying jobs fast enough, so there isn’t yet a large enough constituency to seriously expand the welfare state.

  15. glasnost says:

    This book:

    http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com/

    This book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Race-Against-Machine-Accelerating-Productivity/dp/0984725113/ref=pd_vtp_b_1

    This book:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Work-Jeremy-Rifkin/dp/0874777798/ref=pd_cp_b_3

    Other than climate change, the single greatest threat to human civilization, although also the largest opportunity.

  16. glasnost says:

    The Jacobin article sort of obscures the fact that the rentier state – the kind-of-bad outcome – seems very unlikely to be sustainable. When labor is obsolete, the only thing of economic value is capital – own a business or die. That, in turn, acts as a forcing function – government’s role in mitigating market outcomes gets steadily larger, or it will end up having a steadily larger role in thwarting the electorate, because that electorate won’t reconcile themselves to impoverishment.

    • Curmudgeon says:

      The GOP stranglehold on the poorer regions of the US is proof positive that the (American) electorate will very happily vote itself into permanent poverty. I strongly doubt this particular characteristic is an American exception to the psychological unity of humanity.

      Social arrangements where the impoverished willingly defer to the wealthy are very common and very stable. Indeed, they are the norm for most of human history.

  17. Dustin says:

    Actually the best place to look might be with postwar liberal and left-wing intellectuals who generally assumed that the world you are talking about would develop in the 1970s and 1980s. I am thinking here about men such as Norbert Wiener, David Riesman,Paul Goodman and many others. There actually were a few anthologies published in the late 1960s and 1970s with variations on the title “The Future of Work” that might be interesting to you. Obviously these intellectuals were wrong about the date (though deindustrialized communities would probably disagree with that assessment) but I think the analysis is still applicable to the current situation. They came up with a wide range of alternatives to the worker/consumer model that have been forgotten or dismissed during the conservative and neoliberal ascendency since the 1970s.

  18. ploeg says:

    This is not the best example of what you’re talking about:

    Erik posted a few months ago about self-checkout machines at grocery stores. These machines lower transaction costs for consumers but they destroy jobs.

    Now it might be the hope that this might eventually reduce the number of checkout clerks somewhat, but it seems to be very slow going. Most places that I’ve been to have only one or two banks of these machines, and it’s been that way since the machines were installed years ago. And relative to the number of items that are purchased, it seems to me that the self-checkout machine lines move much more slowly than the traditional lines (because the people who check themselves out are not nearly as skilled at positioning the codes over the reader and keying in produce codes as the staff who do that sort of thing all day long). And it’s a lot easier to ramp throughput up or down with traditional lines than with self-service machines. With traditional lines, you can have people stocking shelves and cleaning up when you’re not busy. When you’re busy, you call them to the front to open additional lines.

    you need somebody at the machine full time, just in case somebody decides to use the machine, whereas you can call people to the traditional lines when you get busy and let them go back to other tasks when you are not busy. So it seems that the self-service machines are more a matter of personal preference

    • sparks says:

      All I have noticed at self-serve lines is that they are partially taking the place of the “10/15 item or less” express line, and most people who use them have very few items. I think they count on customer impatience and understaff the registers to induce people into using them.

      • ploeg says:

        That’s could be a risky strategy. It’s typically in the best interest of the store to make the money extraction process go reasonably quickly. If a customer absolutely didn’t want to use the self-service station, the customer could leave instead of waiting in an unreasonably long line. If it came to that, the store might be better off closing the self-service station and opening another express line.

        • sparks says:

          They don’t appear that popular with anyone except the grab-and-go crowds in the morning and at lunch. Few with more than a dozen items have I ever seen use them.

          At the supermarket nearest me, the previous owner installed the self-serve machines and the new owner has not upgraded them. Generally, at least one is out of order. At the Safeway, the newer, larger stores have them (as many as 6), the smaller older ones don’t and are not being slated to get them (I asked).

          They do have one unseen benefit to the unscrupulous: When I have gone to them with one item or two, I have found considerable amounts of paper money accidentally left in the till. $80 once.

          • ploeg says:

            It might also depend on your locale and the philosophy of store management toward lines. In my favorite store, there’s one 4-shopper self-serve machine, an under-8 express lane, an under-15 express lane, and they call additional checkers when there’s more than the person being served and another person per line. They also have a food area where people can buy ready-to-eat food and maybe a few grocery items (which I guess would count as an express lane for the lunch crowd), and a 2-register liquor store (ditto). Sometimes they close one of the main express lanes, but rarely both. And sometimes the self-serve machine has only one or two people working through their purchases, and sometimes all four slots are occupied and you have a couple people waiting in line to use self-service.

        • chris says:

          If a customer absolutely didn’t want to use the self-service station, the customer could leave instead of waiting in an unreasonably long line.

          They’re unlikely to do that after they have already picked out their groceries, though.

          Whether they’ll remember the hassle and go to a competitor’s store next time may be harder to measure, though, even with discount cards available to track customer behavior.

    • Brandon C. says:

      Not to mention that most stores (at least in Illinois where I have lived, Champaign area and Suburbs of Chicago)have pulled them already because they greatly increase the amount of theft. Walmart doesn’t have a single one anymore.

    • Self says:

      Fresh and Easy markets, US susidiary of Tesco, are completely self check out. If you are purchasing a lot of groceries a worker might help with bagging your items. I like many of their prepared items and the fresh baked bread but the company is still losing over $200 M per year.

  19. Sly says:

    One of the great preoccupations of economists for much of the history of the discipline was the inevitable maximization of what used to be called “leisure time,” or the time spent pursuing enriching but non-monetized tasks. That the world would reach a point where, in the words of Keynes, the permanent dilemma of a person would be “how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

    Of course, that didn’t happen (at least not in the United States). While men in their prime working years are working slightly fewer hours that fifty years ago, and the elderly and minors even less, the average work hour has increased due to the expansion of women in the labor force. Despite increases in productivity (most of us have seen this graph dealing with it in another context), people are working longer.

    I think this has a lot to do with an upward ratcheting effect on the costs of entry into the labor force. It was assumed for the better part of the past century that a middle-class lifestyle could be secured with a high school diploma; something for which the costs of acquisition were widely distributed and the barriers to acquisition were reduced through broad public investment. But despite the fact that this widely-held assumption occurred within the living memory of most Americans, you’ll probably find more people today who believe that the moon landing was a hoax.

    Whether or not this new assumption, that you need a college education, is actually true is an interesting question but its largely irrelevant; its one of those assumptions that become true when enough people believe it.

    So as the demand for a college education increased, did we widely distribute the costs of and obliterate the barriers to its acquisition? Sort of. The costs can be deferred through the student loan system and there is some public subsidy, but it is nowhere near the level of public investment in K-12. We largely consign the costs of acquisition to the individual acquiring it, despite the fact that its value has gone from luxury to necessity. And these costs are probably the biggest thing driving the need for increasing work hours.

    What automation does is spur further demand for post-secondary education under the assumption that automation removes the need for people to perform unskilled labor (again, whether this is true or not is largely immaterial… if everyone assumes it to be true, demand goes up). So how does a world of robot cashiers play out over the long term?

    Ideally, we obliterate the barriers to and socialize the costs of entering into the skilled labor market and pay for it through the resulting expansion of productivity. In short, we have fewer people working cashiers and more people building and maintaining robot cashiers.

    In the nightmare scenario, the increased productivity is continually gobbled up as surplus value by those at the top, and more people are priced out of the skilled labor market and consigned to poverty. Revolution follows.

    What would likely happen is a gradual increase in public subsidy of post-secondary education costs, with the possible complete socialization of those costs at some point decades after it first became politically justified. This is financed by a increases in productivity, while the reactionary piss and moan about “handouts” going to the “undeserving” and the radical characterizing those pushing for expanded subsidies as sell-outs. In other words: Same Shit, Different Day.

    • Sly says:

      Edit: Productivity graph link should go to here.

    • JoyfulA says:

      In the early 1970s, when I was working on replacing typists and secretaries with word processing centers,* the professional journals for systems analysts expected everyone’s workweek to gradually shrink to three days at the same pay. A friend got a master’s in leisure counseling to get in on the ground floor of the coming boom. It turns out that all the people getting more productive didn’t get anything positive out of their increased productivity.

      *First we tried to get managers to use computers, but they (90+% male) were certain that typing would deplete their masculinity or something.

    • Chad says:

      In the Philippines (where I live) the assumption that work (scarce here) would require more than a high school education has led to a large increase in college enrollment.

      The result: Burger joints and department stores now frequently require a bachelor degree for an applicant. No kidding.

    • chris says:

      In the nightmare scenario, the increased productivity is continually gobbled up as surplus value by those at the top, and more people are priced out of the skilled labor market and consigned to poverty. Revolution follows.

      No, in the *nightmare* scenario, revolution doesn’t follow, because massive productivity growth in the disinformation industry keeps the proles from realizing what’s happening to them. So the boot can keep stepping on them forever.

  20. justaguy says:

    The thing you want to avoid doing is assuming that “people I know” somehow equates to “a world”. I mean, its your world, but its not THE world. In the past 20 years we’ve seen a shift in the geographic distribution of industrial production – moving a lot of industrial wage labor to South China and Southeast Asia. It is common for people in the West to look at their changing work environment and use that to reconceptualize capitalism in a way that ignores the millions of people that actually make most of the stuff we own. Thus you see dedicated Marxists coming up with theories which erase the majority of the world’s proletariats. For a good example of this horrible genere look up material and immaterial labor.

    So, maybe you’re talking about changes happening in the US. And if that interests you, see Bethany Mortenson’s To Serve God and Walmart for a good discussion of the cultural changes created by the decline in employment. tldr: The middle class family is under attack from a shifting economic system in which men can’t display their masculinity in the traditional role as a breadwinner, and must take emasculated and poorly paying service jobs. Homophobia is a way of externalizing this very real threat to the American family, pretending that its being attacked by outside forces rather than society itself.

    • Murc says:

      The thing is, a lot of the work those guys are doing as industrial wage labor overseas is stuff that could be automated.

      It just isn’t, because it is currently cheaper to pay people to do it by hand than it is to invest in the physical plant to highly automate the process. But the technology exists, is becoming cheaper every day, and MORE of it is being invented all the time.

      Granted, as I note above, this is something that’s been the case pretty much forever. But my point remains.

      • justaguy says:

        I dunno, I tend to be suspicious of this fetish for technology when talking about the progression of capitalism. That isn’t to say its not important, it definitely is, but its seldom the whole story. And focusing on the way things are actually turning out is a way to guard against the tendency to assume that technology is all determining.

    • tt says:

      Homophobia has declined as the proportion of men employed in services has increased.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m not sure how you would even measure that, but its besides the point. Its been a while since I read her, but what she’s describing is the rise of the trope that homosexuals are a threat to the heterosexual family, not homophobia in general. Now clearly that’s not universally believed, as can be seen in recent gay marriage victories. But the question is why it is compelling to various groups of people at this moment in time.

    • justaguy says:

      Also, if you’re interested in looking at the global division of labor in a social science framework, a good place to start is Anna Tsing’s article “Supply Chains and the Human Condition” in Rethinking Marxism. It talks about how supply depend on different local cultures in order to work.

  21. mikebdot says:

    For a futuristic perspective you should (re?)read Vonnegut’s “Player Piano”. It should be required reading for engineers.

  22. mch says:

    Go to:

    http://econ4.org/

    You can read what’s there and also easily track the work of the people contributing there.

    I assume you know about alternatives to standard firm organization, e.g.

    http://www.axiomlaw.com/index.php/overview

  23. JoyfulA says:

    Don’t forget about freelance, contract, and temp work, all of which seem to be growing fast.

  24. ploeg says:

    I’d also recommend the book (and Atlantic Monthly article) Waiting for the Weekend by Witold Rybczynski, which explores the concept of having designated days of rest from work and goes over the development of what we currently call “the weekend” through the Industrial Revolution up to the 1930s. Rybczynski’s focus and interests might not be entirely on point, but it’s useful to read about how previous generations dealt with this sort of issue.

  25. FMguru says:

    Jeremy Rifkin’s 1995 “The End Of Work” addressed some of these issues.

    In theory, automation eliminating toil should be a tremendous social boon, but our late-capitalist system means that the benefits of increased efficiency accrue almost entirely to the owners of the robots and computer systems, leading to the further immiseration of working and middle class folks. Capital wins again! It’s almost as if the game is rigged in their favor or something…

    Watching automation and technology and outsourcing do to white collar jobs in the 2000s what it did to blue collar jobs in the 1970s-1990s has been mildly amusing, if only to watch the people who lectured steel workers about how they should have been smarter and studied harder in school sputter about the unfairness of it all when they get handed pink slips. Newspaper writers whining about Craigslist and news aggregators are the best, along with columnists complaining about blogs.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I would suggest that your focus on technology means that you are not asking the correct questions in the first place about the prospects of a future of long term high unemployment and underemployment.

    There is always going to be more “work” that can be done. We can always fix more bridges, heal more of the sick, go to mars, whatever…

    The real problem is that the capitol owning segment of our society has enough of a grip on the levers of power on our society that the de-facto policy of the United States and Europe is to maintain high unemployment in order to drive down the wages of those lucky enough to be employed.

    This increases the wealth of the capitol owners even though it decreases the overall wealth of our society.

  27. Observer says:

    Not trying to derail the Marxist discussion of capitalists vs labor, etc., but here’s something that I think would be very interesting to explore.

    California has committed to clean energy. And now it seems that it’s sitting on one of the biggest finds of shale oil ever…over 15 billion barrels estimated. Much bigger than the Bakkan find in North Dakota that is driving their economy to be the best in the nation.

    The question will be what will California do?

    Will they snub this source of wealth they’re standing on as they circle the financial drain, or will they trash their goal of renewable energy to finance and promote the utopian welfare state?

  28. Greg says:

    You might want to read some Buckminster Fuller. Here is one quote:

    “We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” (as quoted in Elizabeth Barlow’s “The New York Magazine Environmental Teach-in,” 1970, New York Magazine)

    Kind of ironic that his solution to the problem is more education.

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