A common topic around the web is whether automation will drastically increase unemployment. The usual scholarly answer is only a bit, and conservatives often insist that new jobs will always be found. Actually, automation has already created much joblessness. It continues to do so. We don’t notice because we have disguised the unemployment.
Consider. In 1850, everybody worked. In England, children notoriously were sweated in mines and factories and, in America, worked on their parents’ farms.
Then child labor laws took kids off the labor market, keeping them from competing with adults. Compulsory high school removed adolescents perfectly capable of doing many jobs of adults. College now keeps millions more in, usually, economically pointless idleness. We have over three million people in prisons. Large numbers live on welfare. The government factors none of these into the unemployment stats. If it did, the unemployment numbers would rise sharply.
Then there is makework. A great many governmental workers do little or nothing of use. This amounts to paid unemployment. Sometimes this unemployment is distributed: A hundred workers do useful work that thirty could do. Then there is the military. It produces nothing and, since the US has no military enemies, amounts to more paid unemployment. The arms industry uses more multitudes in building things of no use, such as ever more intercontinental nuclear bombers. For engineers, this is marginally more dignified than digging holes and filling them in. It is as much a jobs program as the Depression-era CCC.
Another phenomenon we see is the disimportantification (patent applied for) of work. In 1850, work done was genuinely important: growing food, without which we tend to be dead and not of much use in an economy. Then the farms automated and everybody went to work in factories, making cars and refrigerators. These were pretty important, but not as important as food. You can’t eat a refrigerator. Then the factories automated or went away and people became massage therapists, nail salon operators, psychologists, sociologists, consultants, or diversity counselors. Others ran massage parlors, restaurants, gymnasiums, or cutesy-wootsy boutiques selling unbearable kitsch. They were employed, but in occupations of ever-increasing triviality. We have gone from feeding people to rubbing their backs. How far can this go?
This buffering of the unemployed seems to be reaching its limits. In principle I suppose we might encourage our less and less literate college populations to become post-docs in Victims’ Studies, or to engage in the proliferation of ever more glorious aircraft carriers. Sooner or later, though, the pointlessness would become too obvious.
A recent event, laboraly speaking, was the eruption of women and immigrants into the labor market. The women had been buffered at home as housewives and mothers. Now, reasonably enough, they wanted to be biochemists and useless lawyers, like men. The immigrants had been in Mexico. Now they weren’t, and they wanted jobs.
What happens when you throw onto the labor market millions of Mexicans who cannot be buffered and women who do not want to be rebuffered? Easy. The oversupply drives wages down. The Mexicans do for five dollars an hour what had been done by whites for twenty. Women got generally the same pay as men, and did the jobs as well as men. But there were lots lots of them, which gave employers a negotiating advantage.
Wages went down. Some of the decline took the form of loss of benefits, so it didn’t always look like a pay cut. Retirement went away. Workers were turned into “independent contractors” meaning on their own for medical care and so on. Soon it took two people to maintain a family, not one as before. Now people live paycheck to paycheck, maxed out on credit cards, with no savings and little hope. This has produced joblessness, deplorables, Donald Trump, and riots.
Note that automation has ripple effects both upstream and downstream of the loss of jobs reported in the press. When a big newspaper goes all-digital, Weyerhauser sells fewer trees to make wood pulp, the newsprint factories lose orders, the truckers who drove the newsprint to the paper become redundant (as the Brits say), the pressmen get laid off who run and maintain the big four-color web-offset presses, the company that makes the presses lose orders, the people who delivered the papers to your door step lose their jobs, and so on.
Various considerations come into play here, methinks. Software and robots do not buy stuff. Today businesses will automate because the saving in wages raises profits. An aging population buys less stuff than a young one. If the population stabilizes or shrinks, there goes the demand for new houses, suburbs, roads to the, and shopping centers.
I read over and over of the young living in their parents’ basements because they can’t find jobs, or jobs paying enough for them to buy houses and start families, of people who will nevr be able to retire. Humanity being what it is, we won’t see this coming and somehow prepare for it.
Them is today’s cheery thoughts. Next time we will speak of the joys of bubonic plague, said to be hiding in Central Asia and ready to spring. Oh good.