Hey, this machine's got a good job! So what's your beef?

During the late 1970s within scholarly and political debates about technology and society, one of the key topics was “the future of work.”  A number of able writers, the David F. Noble, Seymour Melman, and Harley Shaiken among others, along with leaders in the labor movement, e.g.,William Winpinsinger, President of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, worried that the advance of automation and computerized production – computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine tools and the like would bring devastating consequences to the American working people – falling wages, job loss, long term unemployment, shattered families, decaying communities, etc.    

Noble’s books, Forces of Production and Progress Without People, still essential reading, scoped out much of the social landscape that has, during the past three decades, become the U.S.A. – a land of vacant factories and the now forlorn towns and cities that were once crucial to American industry.   Noble argued forcefully that developments touted as fabulous technical and economic “advances” left a key element out of the picture – the lives of ordinary human beings.  

By the middle 1980s the emerging field of science and technology studies (S.T.S.) turned its attention to other matters – biotechnology, personal computers, identity politics, the social construction of this-and-that, technoscience ANT hills, and other highly fundable research projects.  One consequence of the shift (actually more like a shameful stampede) was to leave ordinary working people high and dry as regards any advocates or supporters within the corridors of academic research and teaching.  Factory workers were, in effect, consigned to an intellectual and practical dust bin, forced to confront automation, robotization, globalization, the networked society, and the political language of “free markets” and “neoliberalism” on their own with few allies in America’s wonderful universities, laboratories and think tanks.  As the tide swept over the land,  S.T.S. became, to a large extent, S.Y.L – See Ya Later!

During the same period and in much the same frame of mind, the nation’s business and political elites explicitly renounced any plans to develop a coherent “industrial policy” for the United States, a policy that might have (among other things) made sensible plans about how to help the nation’s blue collar workers prepare for a future in which post-World War II factory jobs would be replaced by more sophisticated methods of production.  A tacit understanding took hold within both major political parties that the global corporations were now the ones best equipped to make decisions about production, productivity, new definitions of work, and – oh, by the way – the distribution of wealth in the “new economy.” Those who persisted in agonizing about industrial policy and the fate of labor were regarded as fluffy, romantic, unrealistic.  

While attention to living conditions of the American working class (oops, there I said it!) has improved somewhat with the rise of Occupy Wall Street and the recent wave of media attention to the plight of the 99%, it is still rare to find any thoughtful discussion of U.S. factories, their technologies and workers.  Now that the “future of work” has finally arrived, how well are everyday people doing?   

A welcome exception to the prevailing journalistic and scholarly blackout on this score is Adam Davidson’s excellent piece, “Making It in America,” in The Atlantic.  Poignant and often tragically sad, the report is one we should have known and responded to long ago.  
Below are a few notable segments to get you started.  The factory is the Standard Motor Products in Greenville, South Carolina.  The young woman interviewed is Madelyn “Maddie” Palier.

Factories have replaced millions of workers with machines. Even if you know the rough outline of this story, looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data is still shocking. A historical chart of U.S. manufacturing employment shows steady growth from the end of the Depression until the early 1980s, when the number of jobs drops a little. Then things stay largely flat until about 1999. After that, the numbers simply collapse. In the 10 years ending in 2009, factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one out of every three manufacturing jobs—about 6 million in total—disappeared. About as many people work in manufacturing now as did at the end of the Depression, even though the American population is more than twice as large today. ….

Before the rise of computer-run machines, factories needed people at every step of production, from the most routine to the most complex. The Gildemeister, for example, automatically performs a series of operations that previously would have required several machines—each with its own operator. It’s relatively easy to train a newcomer to run a simple, single-step machine.  ….

A Level 1 worker makes about $13 an hour, which is a little more than the average wage in this part of the country. The next category, Level 2, is defined by Standard as a worker who knows the machines well enough to set up the equipment and adjust it when things go wrong.  …. 

For Maddie to achieve her dreams—to own her own home, to take her family on vacation to the coast, to have enough saved up so her children can go to college—she’d need to become one of the advanced Level 2s. A decade ago, a smart, hard-working Level 1 might have persuaded management to provide on-the-job training in Level-2 skills. But these days, the gap between a Level 1 and a 2 is so wide that it doesn’t make financial sense for Standard to spend years training someone who might not be able to pick up the skills or might take that training to a competing factory.  …. 

“What worries people in factories is electronics, robots,” she tells me. “If you don’t know jack about computers and electronics, then you don’t have anything in this life anymore. One day, they’re not going to need people; the machines will take over. People like me, we’re not going to be around forever.”  . . . 

The double shock we’re experiencing now—globalization and computer-aided industrial productivity—happens to have the opposite impact: income inequality is growing, as the rewards for being skilled grow and the opportunities for unskilled Americans diminish.   ….

I never heard Maddie blame others for her situation; she talked, often, about the bad choices she made as a teenager and how those have limited her future. I came to realize, though, that Maddie represents a large population: people who, for whatever reason, are not going to be able to leave the workforce long enough to get the skills they need.  ….

Those with the right ability and circumstances will, most likely, make the right adjustments, get the right skills, and eventually thrive. But I fear that those who are challenged now will only fall further behind. To solve all the problems that keep people from acquiring skills would require tackling the toughest issues our country faces: a broken educational system, teen pregnancy, drug use, racial discrimination, a fractured political culture.  ….

For most of U.S. history, most people had a slow and steady wind at their back, a combination of economic forces that didn’t make life easy but gave many of us little pushes forward that allowed us to earn a bit more every year. Over a lifetime, it all added up to a better sort of life than the one we were born into. That wind seems to be dying for a lot of Americans. What the country will be like without it is not quite clear.