Productivity Increases at the Cost of… the Producers?

         Image result for manufacturing robotsFANUC industrial robots assemble cars at Audi’s primary Hungarian plant. The robots assist with the plant’s annual production of over 2 million engines. [1]

          An issue of particular interest and concern to college students is the pending penetration of more automated systems into the workforce. As we (hopefully) wrap up our degrees, we will be confronted by an increasingly mechanized and rapidly evolving economy. Self-service registers have replaced cashiers in a multitude of retail locations; although these jobs rarely support postgraduates, the implications are somewhat grim. A certain percentage of the economy is inherently exposed to automation. Manufacturing may expect to see further depletion in the human workforce components. Investment management has already slashed huge portions of its jobs, filling roles that were previously occupied with traders and “quants,” short for workers apt at quantitative analysis, with algorithms that can process blocks of data instantaneously and place trades accordingly. While Carolyn Marvin in “Community and Class Order” includes many an anecdote of the telephone’s impact on class and relationship structures, she fails to explicitly mention the economic effect. [2] The call center girls that Marvin references embody the transformative, and destructive, effects of upended industries. Call centers constitute an auxiliary support service for the telephone industry and brought with them a plethora of jobs. Simultaneously, they eradicated far more jobs in the industries that collectively handled communications prior to the telephone. Mailing volumes declined, carrier pigeons became obsolete, and other messenger services dissipated. The same rule holds today; new jobs, if any, created by new technologies can rarely offset the losses elsewhere; counterexamples include and are somewhat limited to ride-sharing technologies and freelance platforms that have enabled members of underdeveloped economies to work. Automation, by definition, consists of using mechanization in lieu of humans, and mankind has more capacity than ever to continue adding processes to the list.

          The downward trend in human participation in the workforce does not bode well for those prepared to enter it who do not yet possess formal training or specialization.  However, there is a redeeming factor: our malleability. Those who merit a position above the immediately-exposed ones in retail and manufacturing will have the opportunity to plot a career course based on what they view as the lease penetrable industry and role types. The rest is out of our hands, as productivity progress will continue to take precedence over compassion, perhaps until a certain threshold, and unemployment level, are breached.


[2] Carolyn Marvin, “Community and Class Order” from When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (1988), pages 63-108

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