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Library of Alexandria: Where are all the jobs? And why those jobs are not coming back

December 4, 2012

Where are all the jobs? And why those jobs are not coming back

I have been thinking a lot about our economic situation as a country, as well as the issues going on worldwide, and have begun to think our problem may be more fundamental than people realize. What if continued advancements in science, technology and education are simply not compatible with our current social and economic model over the long term?  It seems that a fundamental aspect of our social and economic system, at least in the US, is an assumption that the number of workers necessary (X) to complete all work that needs to be done (across all industries) requires roughly the number of workers available (Y)  to work.

With the number of people currently unemployed amid record profits it is not a far stretch of the imagination to begin thinking this assumption may no longer be accurate.  So what has happened?  Science, technology, and education have happened. Over time the ability of fewer numbers of people to do more (and often better) work has skyrocketed and I suspect that while the quantity of necessary work has indeed increased with population growth it has likely not kept up.

For some examples we can look to agriculture, an industry where advancements in science and technology have indisputably continued to produce greater yields for less work throughout history.

A quick search brings up A History of American Agriculture provided by the United States Department of Agriculture(USDA). Here we find that in 1830 “about 250-300 labor-hours [were] required to produce 100 bushels (5 acres) of wheat” while in 1987 “3 labor-hours [were] required to produce 100 bushels (3 acres) of wheat”, the same output, for less effort, on utilizing less land. Another example provided by the Michigan Department of Education tells us that “when farmers had to milk by hand, it used to take two people about two and one-half hours to milk 20 cows. Today, an electric milking machine enables one farmer to milk 20 cows in about 15 minutes”.  Advancements in science and technology had a broad impact on the farming community, gradually reducing the number of farmers necessary to produce enough food and supplies for even a growing population.  Again from the USDA we find a page giving us statistics on the % of the US population that were farmers in select years. In 1790 farmers represented “90% of [the] labor force” while in 1990 farmers represent “2.6% of [the] labor force”.  This was possible, even with the growing population because of the advances that created the increased yields from less effort described earlier.  More information can be gleamed from the U.S. Farm Facts page at Monsanto’s website where we learn that “today, the average U.S. farmer feeds 155 people” up from 26 in 1960.

So what happened to all of the people that were no longer necessary to produce the amount of food we, as a nation, needed? By and large, they transitioned into manufacturing jobs.  According to TheTrumpet.com by 1965 “manufacturing accounted for 53 percent of the[American] economy”. However, by 2004 “it accounted for just 9 percent”.  So what happened? Many will be quick to blame outsourcing to cheap labor in foreign countries, and for a while that may have been correct but it no longer holds up. Former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich helps us understand why in an article discussing the The Future of Manufacturing, GM, and American Workers.  Reich goes on to explain that “factory jobs are vanishing all over the world…even China is losing them”.  This is largely because “new factories are chock full of automated and computerized machines. As a result, they don’t need as many manufacturing workers as before.” Reich goes on to discuss this issue in a Forbes.com article where he urges Americans not to focus on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US because, as an industry, it is a dead end in regard to job production.  He sums up with an anecdote, “I recently toured a U.S. factory containing two employees and 400 computerized robots. The two live people sat in front of computer screens and instructed the robots. In a few years this factory won't have a single employee on site, except for an occasional visiting technician who repairs and upgrades the robots.”

Again, we have seen a fundamental shift in the amount of people necessary to do the work needed to achieve the necessary and/or desired output. What does this all mean for the future? Provided we do not encounter a major energy or resource crisis, automation will win over human labor across many more industries.  It is simply more efficient and cost effective.  Any process that is serial in nature, meaning that it is performed in a step by step fashion, can be automated. Really, it is simply an engineering problem waiting to be solved. Think for a second about what this means, once you realize just how much of the work performed day in and day out by people all across the world is serial in nature you will begin to understand the scope of the problem. Even surgery is being automated, in 2005 a “rudimentary robot was able to perform simple surgical procedures without human assistance”. There is no science or technology based reason that ALL of this work (work that is serial in nature) cannot be fully automated; it is simply a matter of time and initial effort to set it all up.

I am not saying that this is going to happen overnight, of course it isn’t.  A complete transition to the automation of all serial processes will likely take decades, if not centuries longer (unless someone develops a new all-purpose robot that is easy to program and can effectively navigate and interface with the physical world this will make the transition much more rapid). However, this transition, even occurring slowly, has some serious implications.  At the beginning of this essay I gave a description of what I felt was a fundamental assumption underpinning our social and economic system.  Essentially that X (workers needed to complete all work) = Y (# of available workers).  I suspect that if this ever was true, it no longer is.  Over time we will continue to see X reduce while, Y continues to grow until eventually X is a relatively small % of the total population.  I do not believe our current social and economic systems are in any way compatible with either the end result or the slow transition towards a system of automation.

        Once we reach a certain disparity between X and Y it will become necessary to begin offering a guaranteed minimum income or something similar. “Guaranteed minimum income (GMI) is a system of social welfare provision that guarantees that all citizens or families have an income sufficient to live on, provided they meet certain conditions.” Unfortunately, at the moment the idea of welfare, at least in the US, generally refers to “financial aid for the poor”. However, “in Europe, it has a different connotation, and it is defined as a universal service, available to rich and poor alike, thus guaranteeing a minimal level of well-being and social support for all citizens”. Once something of this kind if offered a certain % of the population will deem it sufficient and simply remove themselves from the labor pool bringing X and Y closer together again, essentially the initial benefit should be such that it provides a livable income and being X and Y as close together as possible.  Presumably, as X continues to be reduced, the quality of life afforded by the offered GMI will continue to rise.  Thus, as the need for workers continues to be reduced, the benefits and lifestyle afforded to those choosing not to work should continue to raise maintaining equilibrium.

Of course there will be a certain portion of the population that goes full blown Wall-E or Idiocracy with their new found freedom from labor. However, many people are simply incapable of sitting still.  I would argue that the vast majority of the greatest producers of science, technology, information, entertainment, and so on do what they do not primarily for monetary gain but because they are intrinsically motivated to do what they do.  A system with a GMI should also include free unlimited education to everyone.  This should be done in a Khan Academy styled skill tree of knowledge where anyone who desires will be able to progress through the entire skill tree of human knowledge in whatever way they deem interesting taking as much time as they need and/or want. The using systems like Khan Academy in the class room will undoubtedly lead to great increases in overall education levels.

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At December 5, 2012 at 3:44 PM , Blogger Ondrej Fabry said...

Nice essay! I agree with this, I am just afraid that the biggest companies currently will (and probably do) fight against this because it will mean they will earn less, because only source for GMI now would be from them one way or the other.

Also check out the http://www.thevenusproject.com/
It offers a comprehensive plan for social reclamation
in which human beings, technology and nature will be able to
coexist in a long term, sustainable state of dynamic equilibrium.

At December 5, 2012 at 4:06 PM , Blogger Daniel Kroner said...

Thank you for the comment Ondrej Fabry. I read a lot about the venus project a few years back and really enjoyed what I read. I will take another look. Thank you for the link.

Please subscribe/follow me so you will see future posts on this topic.

At December 11, 2012 at 9:59 AM , Blogger Gary Black said...

Isaac Asimov predicted a similar society in which robots freed humans of most if not all labor. I fear however, that in such a society there will still be required people to fix the computers, provide medical care, settle differences between people and corporations, etc. These people will necessarily have a better quality of life than the GMI citizens who will make up the vast majority of the population who will demand an ever increasing GMI rate (those requiring increased prices, thus driving up the GMI). As long as humans desire more than just an existence, such a society will only work with a strict totalitarian dictatorial government.

At December 25, 2012 at 7:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


At December 28, 2012 at 4:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

All the Jobs in the private sector have different fields and peoples.

At January 22, 2013 at 2:09 PM , Blogger vikkyg said...

Keep in mind that there will always be jobs that can not be automated. For example interpreting medical imaging simply will not be automated in our lifetimes. However, it's still safe to say that many low-skill jobs can be done by machines (and are already done by machines)

At January 22, 2013 at 2:28 PM , Blogger Daniel Kroner said...

I wouldn't be so sure that things like medical imagery, which seem very complex on the surface, are all that far removed from significant advancements in automation -

"On Automation and Medical Image Interpretation, With Applications for Laryngeal Imaging"

Yes, there will likely always be some jobs that for whatever reason have humans performing them. One of the things I was hoping to get across with the article is that at some point the number of humans necessary will fall below the number of humans that exist. At this point it becomes a serious problem that necessitates some major shifts in social and economic policy.

At January 23, 2013 at 8:59 AM , Blogger vikkyg said...

Interesting take. On the medical imaging front, computers will always play a part, but barring major strides in pattern recognition and cognition/AI on the part of computers (which is again decades/centuries away given our lack of a comprehensive theory of the human brain), they will not be more than just a small part. A human radiologist will always be needed, and the world is certainly not ready to let go of its MDs.

I do agree with you that automation will have a major social/economic impact in that it will exacerbate the divide between the two diverging classes in America - skilled and educated versus the alternative. I believe that we will simply create new jobs that aren't really necessary as we have done in the past (e.g. financial sector and advertising despite the fact that we have a relative abundance of goods already that are 90-95% created by machines). The poorer class will continue to fill the gaps as laborers/militia and will continuously dream of entering the richer/skilled/educated class (some will here and there) while the latter will enjoy the majority of the fruits of mechanization/mass production. Until of course a revolution occurs. Then it's anyone's guess.

At February 20, 2013 at 1:54 PM , Blogger Joe said...

It may take a while to automate radiology, but it is commonly outsourced today. Digital images are sent to India and other low cost centers for analysis. This undermines the value the radiology specialists in the U.S. by 2/3's or more.

At February 20, 2013 at 1:56 PM , Blogger Joe said...

Check out the book "Race Against the Machines"

At March 18, 2013 at 6:55 AM , Blogger Beiz said...

Or like in Star Trek, where currency is no longer, and people do what they want to do because, hey, why the hell not?

There would be no greed manipulating our hearts to do what we currently do in our lives today.

If everyone was supplied with the necessities for a good life, such as food, safe water, medicine, a shelter, etc, the only thing that matters would be what we today lock deep within our selves.

Imagine a world where we are free to pursue any and all paths, truly fullfill our desires and dedicate all of our time into the stuff that we truly gave a shit about, but which we are too afraid of today due to economical limitations.

The meaning of money, status, and power, diminishes when we can directly influence our happiness through our everyday lives with no stress or pressure from society.

You say that the people operating this "utopia" would have an advantage, because they have a "real job", but doing what we want in our life is not limited to alien professions, maybe his/her greatest desire is to be the technician that repairs the robots? It's a nich, granted, but people always find reason to fill their nich, such as "protector of our ways", and take great pride in doing what they do.

Here's some relevant words of wisdom from Alan Watts (3min long): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siu6JYqOZ0g

At March 19, 2013 at 2:33 AM , Blogger Ben said...

Imagine for a moment the in the next 20 years machines are able to replace only 20% of jobs without making any new ones in return to replace it, >20% unemployment would be devastating for the economy even for many of the rich, because now there are fewer consumers. With each decade the problem will only get worse. Machines don't need to replace every job any time soon, they just need to replace human jobs faster then we can make new ones then our economy will become unstable (like it is) and even collapse and our society will then experience "revolution".


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