Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Reinventing work

  • Print

 

Most economists will tell you that workers displaced by technological progress and globalization should be able to find comparable employment elsewhere - or at least that the income losses of those who lose their jobs are more than offset by the broader gains to consumers as a whole.

Yet you have to wonder if that’s quite right. Is it possible that machines and trade might eventually polarize the rich world’s labor force into two distinct classes: servants and elites? If we want to prevent that, we may need to reconsider how we think about work and income in an age of abundance.

Two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal provide some nice context. One describes how the recovery’s meager gains have been concentrated among those who were already the best-off. The other describes the rising demand for high-end butlers, maids and housekeepers. These jobs pay as much as $200,000 a year and, unlike many other lines of work, odds are against butlers being replaced by machines. After all, the people who like having human servants probably won’t want to part with the one luxury that never goes out of style. (This also suggests that few people will be able to get well-paying jobs as butlers to the super-rich.)

You might brush this off as a consequence of the recent recession, but it fits into an alarming trend that began about 25 years ago. According to recent research by the World Bank, members of the global upper-middle class (in practice, the middle-class in developed countries) were the only people who missed out on substantial real income gains from 1988 through 2008. Trade and mechanization obliterated well-paying manufacturing jobs, and the health-care and education jobs that replaced them paid much less.

Economists have found that there was basically no net job creation between 1990 and 2008 in those parts of the U.S. economy subject to foreign competition. The growth that did occur in the period was in finance, government, health care and education - sectors where it’s difficult to measure productivity, or where productivity is very low. No wonder anthropologist David Graeber was tempted to speculate that there may be someone "out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working." Just think of finance, where many innovations mostly seem to be about devising clever new ways to extract fees. And how much health-care employment would really be necessary in a world where big companies didn’t relentless ply children with sugar?

Consider that, in the not-too-distant future, we may not need very many people to produce most physical goods. Manufacturing employment has been in decline almost everywhere thanks to the rise of the machines. Even in China, the share of people working in factories seems to have been in decline since the mid-1990s. Perhaps, eventually, "working" will no longer be considered a necessary requirement for a basic standard of living, something Switzerland is considering. (On the other hand, many of us seem hardwired to need the stimulation of a job in order to stay sane.) Maybe we already have enough stuff and not enough leisure time to enjoy it. And if that doesn’t work out, let’s devote some human ingenuity to creating better pointless jobs.

 

Matthew C. Klein is a writer for Bloomberg View.

 

— Bloomberg News

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Wasylycia-Leis wants to create aboriginal accord

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Goose sits in high grass near Marion Friday afternoon for cover -See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge- Day 18 - May 25, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A monarch butterfly looks for nectar in Mexican sunflowers at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Monday afternoon-Monarch butterflys start their annual migration usually in late August with the first sign of frost- Standup photo– August 22, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What should the legal drinking age be?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google