Technology's double-edged sword

May 1, 2012
Where do massive numbers of people find meaningful work in the new global economy?

In the first week of April, unemployment filings were up again, reaching levels not seen since January — causing some economists to speculate that the labor market recovery is slowing. Although the unemployment rate recently fell to 8.2% (its lowest mark in three years), some theorize that many displaced workers have simply given up their job search. Corporate profits are up in many industries, but it seems that after each painful recession, there is talk of “jobless recovery” where fewer and fewer workers are rehired to maintain productivity levels.

Because this magazine covers the tips, tools, and techniques involved in factory automation, the issue hits close to home: The technological advances we explain in Motion System Design — such as sophisticated software and state-of-the-art robotics — are often developed to replace physical human labor. Although we are champions of progress and wholeheartedly support the brilliant engineering of modern production methods, one must ask: Where do massive numbers of people find meaningful work in the new global economy?

Twenty years ago, economist Jeremy Rifkin explored this conundrum in his book, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post Market Era. His thesis is still relevant today: “In the agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors, machines are quickly replacing human labor and promise an economy of near automated production by the mid-decades of the twenty-first century. Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue in the coming century.”

Rifkin, in different turns billed the Most Hated Man in Science and the Guru of European Energy Policy, calls this new phase in world history the Third Industrial Revolution, in which fewer workers than ever are needed to produce the goods and services required globally. No matter one’s view of Rifkin, the knowledge sector will always absorb an elite group of scientists, engineers, technicians, computer programmers, professionals, teachers, and entrepreneurs. However, employment is lacking for millions displaced by technology. Therefore, Rifkin writes that modern society has two choices — formation of a permanent underclass that relies on the underground economy to make ends meet, or a formal recognition of the decreased need for human production labor and an organized program that tasks idled workers with rebuilding local communities. In a proposal that smacks of New Deal ideals, government-backed compensation would fund their work to improve society.

Our last two In the loop columns (Tidy Factories I and Tidy Factories II) discussed the reuse of abandoned factories and how local land banks can facilitate their revival. In the same vein, there must be ways to improve the unemployment-benefit system, Trade Adjustment Assistance program, and Workforce Investment Act to more effectively support displaced production workers.

It’s a tall order, but who better to think about these issues than creative and engineering types? If you have an opinion, we’d like to hear it.

Here's another perspective — On why people tend to support new technologies explained by Game Theory — individuals are more likely to accept an uneven split of a prize if the total prize is very large.

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