Out of the workhouse


Salesforce’s Peter Coffee has had enough of apocalyptic thinking. It’s time to think about creating partnership between technology to do the routinizable and the algorithmable, and people to do the trans-disciplinary and the relational.

Peter Coffee
Peter Coffee

If the global hand-wringing over the end of civilization lasts much longer, I’ll be tempted to start a web site called Apocalyptica. Oh, wait, someone already has that, but at least they’re musicians rather than economists (or, heaven help us, politicians).

What’s worst about the current word-storm is the failure to care about any kind of big-picture arc of history. When “post-truth” is named as “Word of the Year 2016”—perhaps a more useful piece of scholarship than 2015’s citation of “emoji”—then perhaps the numerically literate, and the factually oriented, need to double down on demanding some attention to reality in a multi-decade frame of reference.

Within the domain of discussions here, the myths that require busting are twofold. First, there’s the notion that manufacturing jobs are hiding out there somewhere, waiting to be returned to their natural homes in the UK and the US and other rich-world regions. Second, there’s the over-arching misprision that a “high-wage manufacturing economy” was ever the reality, or that it should be a future goal even if it were possible to do it. I would now say “permit me to be provocative,” except that I’m planning to do it regardless of permission.

What got me started on this was a passage in Jürgen Osterhammel’s remarkable history of the 19th century, “The Transformation of the World”—emphatically not light reading, but worth the effort. I read, then re-read, then verified with additional research his statement that “The classical industrial society was…a fleeting moment in world history… Even in the two countries with the most productive industry, the United States and Japan, industrial work never overtook employment in farming and services.” (Let me clarify the translation from the German original: he is comparing industrial employment to the combined total of farming and services, because farm employment is of course today a tiny fraction of what it used to be.)

Pictures being more powerful than words, I offer in support a graph produced by Louis Johnson that makes obvious what many may find surprising: those factory jobs emerged in the early 1800s, never quite reached even 40% of US employment at their peak in the mid-1950s, and are now on their way back down to something less than half of that. Is that cause for angst? Meanwhile, services are on their way up through 80%, likely still to climb. Is that a cause for trade war?

When Osterhammel talks about the emergence of the factory as workplace, most of his prose is objectively dry – but he gets a little more emotional when he writes that “For someone newly arrived from the country, the first impression of a factory must have been of a workhouse.” [Italics in the original.] An even more vivid portrayal, of a far more current situation, is found in Studs Terkel’s 1974 book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do: “I stand in the same spot, about two- or three-feet area, all night. The only time a person stops is when the line stops. We do about thirty-two jobs per car, per unit. Forty-eight units an hour, eight hours a day. Thirty-two times forty-eight times eight. Figure it out. That’s how many times I push the button.” That’s the kind of job that people want to bring back?

The pipeline that once fed the demand for this kind of once-new worker was also a newly invented thing, back in 1800-something. Alvin Toffler talked about it in his 1971 Future Shock, observing (my paraphrase) that classroom education was ideally designed to teach young farm-raised collaborative problem-solvers a new set of behaviors: show up on time, sit where you’re told, shut up, follow directions, and go home when the bell rings.

Toffler went on to say, “The technology of tomorrow requires not millions of lightly lettered workers, ready to labor in unison at endlessly repetitious jobs; it requires not workers who take orders in unblinking fashion, aware that the price of bread is mechanical submission to authority – but people who can make critical judgments, who can weave their way through novel environments, who are quick to spot new relationships in the rapidly changing reality.”

Where do we get such people? I work with institutions including MIT in orienting young people to the opportunities and necessities of education and career, and I personally look for experiences like FIRST Robotics and CyberPatriot…and Scouting, and performing arts, and the athletic field…as environments where people learn to develop and apply non-trivial skills, in collaborative contexts, under challenges of competition against both people and situations.

What is not needed is incremental improvement of factory-model education to prepare people for decreasingly-existent jobs that were always meant to be done by machines. As recently observed by The Economist:

Valuable semi-skilled manufacturing jobs are not, for the most part, going to return to America, or anywhere else, because they were not simply shipped abroad. They were destroyed.

Returning them, even if possible, would not be restoring a golden era, but would rather be a re-darkening of the world of work just as it starts to show a possibility of becoming brighter.

Creating partnership between technology to do the routinizable and the algorithmable, and people to do the trans-disciplinary and the relational, is a goal to which I can readily give my effort. I owe the next generation no less.

Image credit - Workhouses.org