Labor Costs

One of the topics I want to study more about is what we’re all going to do in the future for work and jobs.  Part of the sharp upheaval of the 20th century of rapid economic development was that a stable career was not sustainable except for certain professions.  It is true in the US that most jobs that students are being taught for, ostensibly, do not even exist yet.

The manufacturing jobs we used to have have been pushed abroad to cheaper labor markets.  Farming has been turned into a large-scale industry needing expensive fertilizer inputs and economies of scale.  Services and data processing have, for a while now, been offshored to cheaper labor markets as well.

The idealized hope was that at least with the offshored jobs, those countries that welcomed such labor-intensive tasks would develop their way into the first-world club.  That has not exactly happened the way people hoped; instead, what has happened (and which is well-documented in Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo”) is that international companies shift resources to whichever country prostrates itself by way of tax-exempt zones, cheap wages, and lax regulation.

Furthermore, as machines and robots will become increasingly capable of completing labor-intensive tasks, they will replace the vast pools of labor that we currently use.  The limits of technology have made vast human workforce scale cheaper (that is, it is still cheaper to use humans to finish sock production than to use machines, if only by pennies per sock).  But that will eventually change.

So what the hell are we all going to do?

We can at least rely on a flattening population curve, which (one would hope) will lead to international competition for higher education for newer information and programming and mapping and engineering jobs.

But what I’m hoping for is that, freed from some of the requirements of labor in order to make the world function every day (whether it’s through a massive breakthrough in energy production, perhaps through solar, or if it’s through using robots instead), that we will actually need to work fewer hours per day and can spend more time engaged in creative and teaching endeavors.

Right now among my friends in DC, it’s pretty common to work from 8 or 9AM up to 8PM or even 9PM, daily.  What on Earth takes them so long to complete tasks at work?  Why is there so much work to do?  Is it because labor costs are so high that firms choose to hire fewer people, but work them harder, knowing that American work ethic looks highly upon those who work long hours for their pay?  Is it because people are just highly inefficient workers when they put in longer hours?

This isn’t sustainable, particularly for raising children, enjoying life, being creative, being social, being helpful in the community.  Surely part of that has assisted the drastic decline in civic life in the US (again, see Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”).  But we don’t want to end up letting robots do anything while we lounge around and become fat (think Wall-E).

I watched a talk given by the host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe.  It takes a while for him to set up his talk, beginning with lamb castration.  But eventually Rowe, whose show has him apprenticing for people who have really dirty, labor-intensive jobs, talks about how these people tend to be really happy, satisfied people.  Rowe says that we work too hard in jobs we don’t enjoy.  He also says that “following your passion” isn’t actually good advice — more important is that you go do something that no one else is doing, to find your niche.

“We’ve declared war on work,” Rowe says.  He says that working people on TV are portrayed in horrible ways (fat plumbers as punchlines).  Rowe says that we consistently feel a longing to have more personal time, but we aggressively fight it in our culture.  We marginalize lots and lots of jobs.  Trade school enrollment is on the decline.  Infrastructure jobs are disappearing.

Think about the old NASA engineers and nuke engineers.  With the strangling of the NASA budget and the public abhorrence of nuclear power plants, those with the technical skills to remember how to build spaceships and construct programs, and create nuke plants, are dying and disappearing.  The ranks aren’t being re-filled.  As a society we are forgetting how to build things and how to do things.

What is going to happen if we run out of products to market and advertise?  What is going to happen if we’re too busy working to raise our children properly and enjoy life?  What is the standard of living that we want?  How do we balance work, family, religion, recreation, creativity, et al?  Do we even know how to measure all that yet?  We’re going to need happiness and well-being metrics on an individual and an aggregate scale.

The path of the internet’s development has shown us that software and hardware are hollowing out the core of labor within modern goods and services.  A small software company of 5 people can now use the cloud to host their data — all they’re doing is programming and internal business management and marketing/sales, pretty much.  Large-scale projects can now be done by a handful of people.  Sure, somewhere the cloud must be managed, but the costs to start a well-educated programmer/business idea are so low now.  You don’t need the capital for hiring lots of people or the capital expenditures to purchase equipment.  You can work out of your apartment.  What are 8 billion people going to do when software runs a highly-autonomous network of computer systems in the future?

Guess we better start learning to enjoy each other’s company and free time…