The 20th Century, it can be argued, was the worker’s shining moment. Not so the 21st! Our notions about hard work and a good life have disconnected.

I worry about the economy. Will our lost jobs come back? Probably not.

The bad economy is one reason jobs have left–but it’s not the only reason. There just aren’t as many reasons to employ people when you can get machines or even the customer himself to do the work for you.

Look at all the jobs that used to exist but no longer do. There are the obvious customer service agents replaced by voice prompts and recognition. Checkouts at the supermarket and hardware store now self serve. The gas station too. Monday, my co-worker Ann Nyberg showed me a photo of a ‘helpless’ Dunkin’ Donuts inside a grocery store.

No one wants employees if they can avoid them us. We are a pain in the ass. We are expensive, temperamental and prone to break down. We form unions. We kvetch. We need to be managed.

Businesses like Google where the cashflow overwhelms the staffing requirements are the goal.

When was the last time you heard an entrepreneur with a business model that was labor intensive? It’s been a long time.

What was a department store is now Wal*Mart, Target or BJs. There’s a fraction of the staff. And we’re only seeing the front of the store. Every economy of scale is a reason for fewer people.

The 20th Century might have been the century of the employee, a time when the worker did well. The 20th Century, it can be argued, was the worker’s shining moment.

Not so the 21st! Our notions about hard work and a good life have disconnected.

In the past as labor saving devices came on line workers and their bosses benefited. Now only companies benefit from increased productivity. And, the job market is so unbalanced there is no leverage for most workers. It’s tough to see the playing field evened for a long time to come.

One thought on “Working”

  1. Saw your post titled “Working” and couldn’t resist a comment…

    I am employed as a controls engineer at a small robotics integration company…In short we build automated / robotics systems for manufacturing companies…While the context of your post is more general, technology replacing people, my experience is with manufacturing.

    When I was younger, the first time I remember the words “Outsourcing” and “Trade Deficit” was in the early to mid eighty’s, coincidently (NOT) about the same time 2 income family’s started to become the norm.

    Manufacturing has almost stopped in the US, the reasons are more complicated than labor costs and I could write a book on the subject given the time…but the point is this, we simply consume more than we produce and you don’t need to be an economist to know that is simply unsustainable…

    My belief, based on gut, instinct and observation is that manufacturing IS the middle class. Without it, class separation will continue and accelerate. Consumers want more for less, they don’t stand on ethics or morals, they sit on their wallets. Right now, the reason most manufacturing happens oversees is because of cheap labor. The only choice is to become more competitive…and the best way to do that is through technology.

    We recently completed a project for a local manufacturer (if I mentioned the name you would surely recognize it). The project involved robotically assembling a product. The significance was that for the last five years, the product was manufactured and assembled in China. It is what we refer to as a “Pull Back Job” meaning something that was lost to offshore manufacturing that we brought back home. We have been awarded two additional contracts from the same company that will also be pullbacks…and the best part…the

    company hired a new technician to support the new equipment. Not a ten dollar an hour manual labor position…but a highly skilled, well paid technician…

    Things are changing, like they always do…and I think the pace of change is increasing. How many people do you know who have “reinvented” themselves…made big career changes, gone back to school mid life etc…I

    know many…and if you think back even 30 years, that was almost unheard of…We don’t have the luxury of the traditional path anymore…

    All we can do is try to make it change for the better…I felt the discouraging tone of your post…just wanted to let you know that there are some of us out here who are trying to use our talents and skills to make things better.

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