The Self-Suffocating Fight to Bring Back the Jobs of the Past

The Self-Suffocating Fight to Bring Back the Jobs of the Past
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Adam Smith and Karl Marx disagreed about almost everything. The invisible hand of the market versus public ownership of the means of production, the free exchange of goods and labor versus dictatorship of the proletariat.  It would be difficult to think of a wider philosophic gap than the chasm that separated their thinking.

But they agreed on at least one thing: The risk that constant repetition of mundane tasks common to old-style manufacturing could lead to deep worker alienation and intellectual stultification. The human need for constant mental stimulation that they both recognized is one of the strongest arguments today for the embrace of new technologies that eliminate repetitive tasks in the workplace and replace them with jobs that require adaptability, a diverse range of skills, and an eagerness to bear wider responsibilities.

Smith recognized that the division of labor was essential to increased productivity, but he also believed that confining workers to performing a single repetitive task could cause what he called “mental mutilation,” going so far as to warn that those who had “no occasion to exert his understanding or exercise his invention … lose(s) the habit of such exertion.” Marx believed that the division of labor brought about alienation, with workers identifying less with the entire product they contributed to making, and becoming less versatile in their skills, less autonomous, and only able to perform a narrow band of repetitive tasks. Not surprisingly, Smith and Marx offered different solutions, but they both saw similar problems.

While many would view these descriptions of the problem of worker tedium as overwrought, it has represented a challenge for both employers and employees. Henry Ford faced it when he created his moving assembly line. The continuous flow of large-scale production made every employee a crucial link in the chain. But the wage of $2-$2:50 per day – while competitive at the time – was not sufficient to retain workers whose jobs involved continuous repetition of the same task. Ford’s factory experienced an attrition rate of about 350 percent – prompting the need for continuous retraining programs, break-in periods and even halts in production. He addressed the problem through the then-groundbreaking policy of raising his workers pay to $5 per day, with the improved productivity more than covering the additional cost. About half was paid as a bonus after six months – the better to improve worker retention rates. It paid off, cutting Ford’s attrition rate down to about 15 percent – a result he could achieve only by offering people enough money that they would stay in jobs they found tedious. Unions have also sought to grapple with the challenge of tedium in traditional manufacturing, one of the factors that helped drive the labor demand for early retirement, or “30 years and out.”

Increased technological sophistication is making manufacturing jobs more diverse, with wider opportunities for developing a broader range of skills. At an Amazon fulfillment center, workers who used to stack and lift plastic bins now accomplish the same task by directing sets of mechanical arms. At a Kodak plant, an employee now runs advanced machinery that mixes filmmaking ingredients with precision; 10 years ago, it took 14 workers to do the job.

But the shift to the technologies that facilitate this transformation is increasingly feared. It is understandable that workers would resist new means of production that render their own job unnecessary. But while virtually every new technology from the spinning wheel to digitization has eliminated somebody’s job, it hasn’t led to high overall unemployment. Otherwise, the United States wouldn’t enjoy virtually full employment in the midst of the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, mostly to robots. If the labor market was a zero-sum game, the nearly 10 million net additional women who entered the workforce in the 1970s would have led to a huge surge of unemployment, rather than the roughly 4 percent rate we see today. Job shedding doesn’t just eliminate jobs, it also creates some in their wake – and increases pay along with productivity. An American worker today, for example, earns more (in terms of buying power) in 10 minutes of work than mid-19th century English mill workers earned in a 12-hour day.

Moreover, trying to stand in the way of new technologies to cling to outdated jobs is self-defeating. Improved living standards (and social stability) depend on constant economic growth, which in turn depends on improved productivity by leveraging technology. If the need to conquer mundane labor was clear enough to have united Adam Smith and Karl Marx across the 18th and 19th centuries, it should be even clearer in the 21st.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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