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LUDDITES FEARED technology would destroy their livelihoods 200 years ago. Today, some researchers claim that we may be losing the “race against the machine” yet again. However, others foresee a breed of “new artisans” replacing yesterday’s middle class.
An article “How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class,” by David H. Autor and David Dorn, both at MIT, in The New York Times, August 24, 2013, discusses these and other aspects. (See http://goo.gl/o6GKcT.) With a bit more digging, here’s my take on it all.
The Luddite Movement in Britain’s early 1800s believed the Industrial Revolution was displacing workers with machines. By the way, the name may trace to Ned Ludd, who allegedly destroyed machines a few decades before.
A counter argument is that technology didn’t destroy jobs back then; rather, it reassigned them. Jacquard looms, for instance, eliminated home weaving as employment. However, the looms generated new jobs for workers maintaining their operation as well as specialists devising improved means of production.
True, there are also the matters of work ethic and quality of work life.
Generally, greater automation caused a rise in productivity, but not necessarily in employment. An example: In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. work force was in agriculture. By 2000, the figure had fallen to 2 percent.
Yet, as cited in The New York Times article, “no one could foresee that a century later, health care, finance, information technology, consumer electronics, hospitality, leisure and entertainment would employ far more workers than agriculture.”
Computers are ubiquitous examples. They excel in repetitive tasks, organizing, storing, retrieving and sorting information. Computers are also adept at executing precisely defined actions in manufacturing.
Note, however, these are all tasks hitherto performed by those of middle-skill levels, clerical workers in offices, production-line people in factories.
By contrast, humans are much better than computers at two extremes. We excel in adaptability to situations, visual and language recognition and personal interaction. We’re also more adept at intuition, creativity and problem solving.
This first skill set typifies manual tasks. Notes the article, “These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.”
The second skill set typifies the designers and implementers of technology. Generally, they require high levels of education or training—and have commensurately higher rewards.
Arguments along these lines characterize the article’s title, “How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class.”
However, it’s not all gloom and doom. Jobs of middle skills—rewarded with middle-class pay—continue to exist. What’s more, they call for elements of each end of the human-skills spectrum: human adaptability and personal skills as well as appropriate technical training.
Medical paraprofessionals are an example. Radiology and other health-care technicians are cited as rapidly growing categories of relatively well-paid, middle-skill occupations.
Others involve the skilled trades, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and builders. Other growing categories are physical therapists and personal trainers. Mechanics familiar with today’s increasingly complex automobiles are yet another.
Such people are being termed the new artisans—and the new middle class. Generally, their occupations require a high-school education combined with specific vocational training.
Technology is no threat to them, as they offer skills that are uniquely human. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013