Business news from the Fredericksburg region.
Technology’s eating jobs faster than we can replace them
IN the 1957 Spencer Tracy–Katharine Hepburn movie “Desk Set,” Hepburn plays a reference librarian confronted with one of the earliest computers. The machine answers a question in seconds that would have taken Hepburn and her staff 45 minutes.
The librarians bravely wait for their pink slips, but in the end, everybody’s job turns out to be safe. Hollywood loves happy endings.
The endings aren’t so happy for many people these days. Technology is chewing up middle-class jobs like Godzilla at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Almost anything that can be done, it seems, can be done much more quickly and much more cheaply by a computer.
Progress has always destroyed jobs.
The “dark, Satanic Mills” of William Blake’s 19th-century England put millers and other skilled laborers out of work and mobilized the Luddites. But the factories also created jobs.
The automobile did a number on the buggy-whip industry, but Detroit hired tens of thousands of workers, ushering them and their families into the middle class.
This time could be different.
According to an Associated Press story last week, computing power is doubling every 18 months to two years. It is becoming impossible for the human race to come up with new jobs as quickly as technology eliminates the old ones.
And there’s another big difference, the story points out:
Computers are making humans irrelevant across the board, in just about any occupation you can imagine. The sweep of this revolution far surpasses anything in the past, and much of the pain is being absorbed by the ever-shrinking middle class.
As the middle gets smaller, fewer homes and cars and boats and TVs will be bought, and the economy will grind to a halt.
There is much talk about the 1 percent being job creators. Well, it’s time to starting creating.
In 1914, Henry Ford announced that his male employees (or those, at least, who agreed to follow Ford’s moral strictures) would begin receiving a wage of $5 a day. The old wage had been $2.34. He also cut the work day to eight hours.
Critics and business rivals said he would be ruined. Instead, Ford’s profits doubled between 1914 and 1916. The move is credited with helping create the American middle class. The people who made more money bought more things (including, as Ford knew would be the case, more Model T’s) and boosted the whole economy as other industrialists had to make wage concessions as well in order to keep bright, hard-working people.
So who is going to be the 21st-century Henry Ford? Who is going to save the middle class that Ford helped create (and at the same time, save the whole economy)?
Something has to happen. Do we concede that all the world’s work can be done with a shorter work week? If machines are doing the work faster, why can’t we have people working four days a week and earning what they used to make in five days, thus re-creating millions of jobs?
Where’s all the money that technology has saved us going, anyhow? Maybe the traditional work week becomes four days with the expectation that we spend that fifth day helping the needy.
Technology is supposed to make our lives better. All it seems to be doing right now is concentrating the country’s wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
In “Bonfire of the Vanities,” one of Tom Wolfe’s characters explains about the perils of a widening gap between rich and poor.
“You’re investing in steam control,” he says, explaining why sometimes the wealth has to be shared. “And you’re getting value for money. People own the boilers, but that don’t do ’em a bit of good unless they know how to control the steam. If you ever see a steam boiler go out of control, then you see a lot of people running for their lives.”
For much of the middle class and below, the boiler’s getting pretty overheated right now.
Business Editor Howard Owen writes this biweekly column on business and the economy. He can be reached at 540/ 374-5539 or email@example.com.