Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Future of Human Labor

Regarding the quote by President Coolidge, I think he was mostly right. I think the "business of America" is what most people do to earn a living. But earning a living is not the same thing as the abstract pursuit of wealth. Earning a living is how people pay their bills, which consists primarily in feeding themselves, finding shelter and acquiring the things necessary for a normal life. Anything beyond the basic necessities for life is often considered a luxury.  But most people (certainly most Americans) are not content with the bare necessities for existence. They want a higher level of comfort in their lives. Over time, as our economy has grown, our "pursuit of happiness" became associated (perhaps mistakenly) with a desire for physical comfort, i.e., leisure. Is comfort the same thing as luxury? Well, it can be. It all depends on how much comfort you feel you need in your life. The industrial revolution made possible the creation of wealth on a larger scale which made some people rich, while giving many other people the ability to acquire things which made life more pleasant, such as washing machines, televisions and cars.

Adam Smith talked about the social organization of labor. Thanks to the industrial revolution and its compartmentalization of labor, the factory became a more efficient system for producing goods than the old pre-industrial arrangement based on individual craftsmanship. With machines, you no longer needed skilled labor to do many of the jobs which could now be done faster through automation. Unfortunately, we learned that repetitive behavior and treating people like machines leads to boredom and the loss of pride in one's work. This results in higher absenteeism in the workplace. Today, many employees no longer feel any loyalty to their work or their employer because they know that they can be easily replaced by other non-skilled workers. This results in a downward spiral of low self-esteem, absenteeism and a steady decline in quality control. This trend was famously exposed in the American auto industry in the 70s when Japan started bringing its cars into the American market. Japanese cars demonstrated a higher level of quality for less money than American cars. Within 10 or 15 years, Japanese cars dominated the American market. Some of this can be explained by saying that the price of labor was cheaper in Japan. But the Japanese also proved to be more innovative in their systems management. The relationship between employer and employee is completely different over there.

In a mechanized economy where manual labor is increasingly generic and disposable , will competition result in an aristocracy of labor or its eventual demise? The old Greek term "arete" (excellence) referred to the art of doing things well. Pride in one's work was expressed in the craftsmanship of the finished product. But when manual labor today is reduced to flipping switches to activate machinery, there doesn't seem to be much room for either pride or virtue to be associated with work. Work then becomes simply a means toward a paycheck, which doesn't seem to inspire anyone to rise above the mediocrity of manufacturing goods and selling them at the lowest possible price. Of course, it is possible that machines will continue to improve both in efficiency and quality until the products of human labor will become much too expensive or perhaps not even worthy of being marketed. In this technological future,    when machine made objects are perfect and superior to anything a human being could do, what role will humans play in the manufacturing process?


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