The question of jobs

by Belden Paulson

Everybody complains about job shortages but--as with the weather— nobody does anything about it. Well, make that nearly nobody. There are several local initiatives, and in this three-part series on “Joblessness: A Creative Response to one of America’s Great, Long-term Challenges” Belden Paulson, political scientist and resident of Town Mitchell outlines the basic problem as well as two “tracks” towards a solution.

It is the basis for a talk presented Wednesday, May 15 for the World Future Society Milwaukee chapter. Part One summarizes the challenge. Part Two identifies short-term responses. Part Three takes a longer view of a “transformed” society.

Our economy can now produce all the goods and services our society needs without its total labor force. Modern technology has brought untold benefits in improving our level of living and reducing much of the most arduous tedium of work. But as our country’s wealth dramatically increases while the number of workers needed to make that wealth significantly decreases, three central questions arise:

—With a sizable percentage of the population without a full-time job to support themselves and a family, how will they cover the basic necessities of life?

—With increased numbers of people jobless, what will they do with their free time? Will they have opportunity to utilize their talents?

—If the people who invest the capital (the stockholders) and those who are still employed (workers and executives) take all or most of the wealth they produce, how will this accentuate the already rising economic inequality in America? For example, the top 1 percent have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.

Keep in mind these background details:

—According to recent U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics (as of August 2012), 12.5 million people are unemployed; 2.6 million are the “forgotten unemployed” (unemployed for a year or more, some having given up any expectation of finding work); 8 million under-employed (working parttime). Total: 23.1 million. To be noted, there are 26.6 percent nonemployed people ages 25-34, the highest in the industrial world.

—For companies to stay in business and compete globally, they must continually seek to increase their efficiency, adding automation devices that maximize productivity but require fewer workers.

—With technologies using computers and robots expected increasingly to take over the economy, we anticipate their use in many sectors. According to a recent issue of the Future Policy Journal they include: manufacturing (e.g. 3-D printers); health care (e.g. recent Atlantic issue on robots asking: Is your doctor becoming obsolete?); maintenance and domestic work (e.g. janitors, cleaners); professors (e.g. on-line courses); teachers (e.g. laptop computers); librarians (e.g. online book ordering); travel/rental car agencies (e.g. kiosks and online booking). The impact of these examples: more efficiency, fewer workers.

—Eminent social thinker Jeremy Rifkin in The End of Work concludes that this is only the beginning: World War II ended the 1930s depression and provided jobs; in the 1950s the National Defense Highway Act, and in the 1960s the Great Society poverty war provided jobs. For forty postwar years as people moved from manufacturing into services, new jobs opened up. Computers and robots are now ushering in a new and different era. Norbert Weiner, father of cybernetics, predicted that the long-term consequences of automation technology will bring “the greatest unemployment we’ve ever seen.” Management consultant Peter Drucker foresaw capitalism facing an unprecedented new issue: the looming disappearance of labor as a factor of production. Rifkin poses this question: Will the ever-mounting profits of expanding wealth be used for societal benefit, or for enriching the corporate world and thereby increasing the haves-havenot gap?

Not to be overlooked is the impact of this new technology on the black population that migrated to northern cities after World War II. They filled unskilled and semiskilled jobs but automation has wiped out many of their jobs. Respected sociologist Julius Wilson argues in When Work Disappears that the key factor in today’s inner city pathology has been joblessness. Conservative writer Charles Murray observes in his Coming Apart: “Our nation is coming apart at the seams—not ethnic seams but the seams of class.”

In 1983 I helped to organize through the University of Wisconsin a national conference on “The Changing Role of Work.” We assembled key leaders and thoughtful thinkers representing the best experience available—from business, unions, government, academia, to address the future of work—at that time with a less ominous future than today. Our two keynoters included path-breaking futurist Willis Harman. His seminal article in The Futurist, entitled “The Coming Transformation,” concluded that modern industrial society, using the kind of data described above about joblessness, is facing fundamental challenges that will require nothing short of historic transformative shifts. The second keynoter was Richard Goodyear, vice president and legal counsel at Chrysler; the company had just received a government bailout to prevent bankruptcy. The company’s CEO, Lee Iacocca, told us that we should invite Goodyear because he was responsible for the company’s successful strategy. After the two talks, Goodyear whispered in my ear that Harman’s transformation thesis was correct but he’d never say it publicly.

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