Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thinking the unthinkable

I was in a weird place recently.

It was an eerie, silent place, unlike anything I had ever seen. Things seemed to move of their own accord, as if imbued with some supernatural intelligence.

It was a warehouse, and while you may be visualizing some haunted, forgotten, ruin left over from the Great Depression, this was a state of the art distribution facility operated by one of North America's leading clothing retailers.

Pallets of product moved around the huge, spotless, climate-controlled space, subject to a central command system as they followed electronic paths embedded in the floor.

I saw no forklift trucks or workers during the couple of hours I visited. The scene was a far cry from the 1960's shipping dock where I slugged boxes around to earn beer money during my student days.

This is the rapidly approaching, automated future, and it's bringing huge problems for masses of workers with skills geared for the 20th century.

Robots, information technology, and self-service are eliminating the jobs that enabled millions of families, over almost seven decades, to live comfortable, middle class lives.

Self-serve gasoline pumps, automatic tellers, and do-it-yourself checkouts in retail stores gave us early warning that things were changing, that technology could do many things more cheaply, and more dependably, than people.

Granted, advancing technology also creates jobs, but most of those require very specialized, high level skills, not the sort of thing that can be picked up in a quickie job retraining program. And whereas the technology train has historically delivered more jobs than it destroyed, it now seems to be shifting into reverse.

Many manufacturing plants are highly automated, and becoming more so. The latest robots can each perform several functions.

Some forecasters think that automobile plants, for example, will be operated with just a handful of humans who program and maintain the robots and other machines. Robots are are now moving into second tier manufacturing operations, and we have previously mentioned the new versions being built for small businesses.

Futurist Jeremy Rifkin sees technology largely replacing farm workers, factory workers and, eventually, service workers.

That sounds like a hollowing out that leaves only the low skilled, low paid jobs at the bottom and the very high skilled, high paid jobs at the top, with those in the middle largely disappearing.

I am old enough to remember the forecasts of a "leisure society" that were being bandied about fifty years ago. That turned out to be a pipe dream, but maybe we ought to start thinking about a world without jobs for the middle class, and the dramatic impact that would have. On everything.

Update: At mid-day on Saturday, January 5, 2013, I was shopping in a Wal-Mart in Venice FL, and found that there were no human checkout clerks, only a few automated self-scan checkouts. The lines were long, and grouchy, but customers passively stood in line awaiting their turn. I abandoned my purchase, and went elsewhere. If enough of us do this, there's a small chance that things might change.


  1. Doug, in light of the tragedy in Bangladesh this week I'm curious to know if all of this automation is only happening in North America. Is it still cheaper for these huge conglomerates to use underpaid, undervalued workers in the third world?

  2. Good question Francie. Factories throughout the developed world have high levels of automation. While low paid factory work currently sustains many in the developing world, wages inevitably rise while technology gets cheaper. At some point the cost curves intersect, and tasks are automated. For example, stacks of denim (formerly cut by hand) are now laser cut by machines programmed with the patterns for jeans. As transportation costs are driven higher by the rising price of oil, much formerly exported manufacturing may return to North America, but without the jobs they contained when they left.

    1. Unmentioned in any of this is the wholesale downsizing of government workers and military personnel that will be required for the U.S. to get its financial house in order over the next decade. Widespread unemployment and crashing standards of living seem inevitable. Sounds like a perfect storm for employment, doesn't it?

  3. Yes it does. I remember when I was small, after listening to harrowing accounts of the Depression, asking my mother if it could happen again. "Oh," she said, "They'll never let THAT happen again."

    And what a bitter pill - to think that after all of our belly aching about bringing manufacturing back to North America, it may in fact come, but without the jobs.