Saturday, October 20, 2012

Humans Need Not Apply

Remember all those World’s-Fair-Home-of-the-Future-brighter-days-techno-daydreams? Those black and white sci-fi B-movies where some reassuringly Brylcremed gentleman who kept his cigarette case in his lab coat pocket described a new utopia where technology paved the way for a life of peace and leisure (usually just before everything went all monster shaped and spoiled the whole afternoon)?  These were already the stuff of nostalgia by the time I showed up, but the dream lived on, and you know what, gang?  

We did it.

Welcome to the future, kids.  Hope you brought something to do.

The dream came true.  We've taken huge strides in our pursuit of the easy life, a life free from labor.  We work faster and with better results than at any time in history, all because we've done our level best to make work a thing of the past.

I can remember hearing nervous rumblings of now-what worry as far back as the 70s.  Robotic assembly lines worked faster and more reliably than people, without coffee breaks, sick days or those pesky human rights to contend with.  Unions weren’t exactly abuzz with possibility.  They were scared for all those manufacturing jobs, and as it turns out, with good reason.

That was about the same time someone figured out that people were willing pump their own gas if it meant saving money, that cheap beats good as sure as rock beats scissors .  No-frills labels started showing up in the grocery stores.  Superstore savings won out over Mom and Pop service-with-a-smile.  Everyone was looking for new ways to shrink that price tag and pump up profits.  

Turns out one of the easier corners to cut is man-hours.

Skip ahead.  These days, online shops are beating old school retail bloody, and store clerks are an endangered species.  If one central customer service center can handle those few customers unable to make their purchases, if one warehouse can ship anywhere in the world, why would anyone want to mess with all those retail outlets and all the headaches of stocking and staffing the same shop over and over again in town after town?

We're not losing every job out there.  We aren't becoming slaves to our robotic masters.  That’s not where this is leading.  There will always be some need for some human effort and oversight, but we are getting much, much more efficient.  We can meet higher demand with fewer man-hours, and we're only going to get better.  That means that, as we go on, jobs are going to get harder to come by. 

The upshot is that manpower is cheaper.  There are more man-hours available for sale than there are jobs to fill those hours.  Great if you’re running a business, not so much if you’re running a household.  It takes more time at work to pay the bills, never mind disposable cash or savings.  When there just isn't more work available, folks have to make do with less. 

Business owners are likely to tell you that labor is still too expensive, and it may very well be that the price of hiring someone has gone up where you live.  To be honest, I haven’t the faintest, and that’s not what I’m talking about.  

I'm not talking about what the employer pays out.  I'm talking about what the employee gets for an hour of his work, about how many hours it takes to fill the fridge and keep the lights on, about how many hours it takes to stay afloat.

Once, families were able to live comfortably on the sold time and effort of one family member.  For most of us, that’s never going to be possible again.  It takes more hours these days to meet the bills, never mind disposable income and savings.

And since we’re talking about a consumer-based system, fewer man-hours means less money in consumer pockets, which means less demand.  It’s going to be harder to keep the system ticking over as we go on.

This has been building for a while, but we've managed to keep this trend at bay by creating new demands (cell phones, anyone?), and with a reliance on disposable goods (cell phones, anyone?), but we can’t rely on new gotta-have-‘em trends to keep feeding the system forever.  How many times do you honestly think the public will be willing to repurchase the same song in a new format? 

It seems unlikely to me that this trend will reverse.  Business owners will only create jobs if they can’t meet demand with the workforce available.  That demand requires customers willing and able to buy.  If we strip mine the workforce, taking maximum production for minimum cost, that population won’t be able to fuel a consumer market.

We’re heading for a post-employment world, where time and effort no longer have enough value to draw a livable wage.  We’re coming to a place where we need to find new ways of valuing ourselves, ways that don’t involve trading cash for work.  I have no idea what form that new system will take, but I do know the current system can’t hold on forever.  

For what it's worth, looks like we'll have plenty of time to figure it out.