This post is a two-parter. I’m going to state what I think is going on and then back it up with some figures. You can draw your own conclusions in the comments.
Thousands of years ago, before any kind of automation, people worked in order to grow things, craft things, move things, etc. Domestication of animals was one of the first forms of automation – instead of chasing animals around all day, why not keep some for breeding and then just pick them off when they are ready? Why drag things around by hand when you can use a horse? If there were no other jobs, this would have put people out of work, but people went on to become farmers. More people had time to study, colleges of sciences and arts started cropping up, and more professions were born.
Fast forward to 2014 and more jobs are being automated. More people are working on creating and maintaining these robots and processes that keep things going. That means less manual labour jobs and more desk jobs. CEOs of companies are now celebrities and they earn increasingly more than the basic workers at their companies. The CEOs earn so much more not because they are doing that much more work, but because their work is inherently more risky and the talents they bring are harder to find (compare this to professional athletes versus some dude at the gym).
More and more, school leavers are complaining that they have to study for many years, take on a lot of debt, and face an uncertain job market with bills that they cannot pay, and houses they cannot afford. This problem is getting worse every day. Most of our parents could afford a house in a nice area on a single salary in their late twenties.
But isn’t this all exactly as we should expect, the way our society is progressing? Using the smartphone as an example, in the USA it has become one of the most ubiquitous accessories. It assists us with our daily lives and can be considered an extension of our brains. It is also totally unessential for life. It may take 1000 people to develop and produce a smartphone, but that phone can be mass produced by machines and delivered to millions of people. Soon we won’t even need operators for those machines. If the human population doubles, we don’t need to double the number of workers making smartphones. So how do buyers continue to pay for those smartphones indefinitely? What do those people DO in order to make money in a world that is becoming more and more automated, and in a world where fewer workers are needed to produce the same quantity of things?
The answer is that more and more people simply don’t work. Those that do find work wherever they can, and if they can’t afford essentials and fall below the poverty line, governments pick them up and tax the people with money to give to the people without. It’s part of living in a modern society. But where does this end? What do we do when we run out of work for people? Do we end up with a rich few and poor majority with a struggling middle? Most probably, yes.
Sadly none of the predictions that people in the future would have more leisure time are coming true. People working ridiculous hours to make ends meet are still working ridiculous hours, even though those hours are unnecessary given the sheer number of people who don’t work.
Maybe it’s time to tell people that working 30 hours a week is OK and acceptable. Maybe people could use some of this spare time for some genuine good, like teaching children or cleaning up little, although I actually have no faith that most people would actually want to contribute to their community.
- In the US, average unemployment length has more than tripled since 1950 (source: BBC)
- CEO salaries have increased ten times faster than employee salaries since 1950 (source: Huff Post)
- Productivity in the USA went up by 75% from 1979 to 2012, though I think that a lot of this is down to investment in technologies to make work more efficient (source: inequality.is/expensive)
- If the median US middle-class income of $51,017 grew at the same rate as the increase in productivity, people would make $77,131 (source: inequality.is/expensive)
- In 1926, the Ford Model T was sold for $260. Taking into account inflation, this is $3,482 in 2014. The cheapest car currently on sale in the US today is the $12,780 Nissan Versa. That’s almost four times as much (sources: CLIO Journal, inflation calculator)
So what do we do about this? Probably nothing, because stopping progress in a country like the USA where big business dictates country policy is not possible. I think the best that people can hope for is to change attitudes and understand that it’s never going to be as easy to get a house on a single income as it was in the 1950s.
PS. I don’t really think Henry Ford was a dick. He picked the best colour for the Model T, after all.