Beyond the Factory Floor

The other day, I looked into a mirror and suddenly realized that my mother was looking back.

It sneaks up on you.

Most of us don’t notice the day-to-day changes in ourselves, or our environments, unless something triggers that recognition. That is especially true of the inexorable increase in automation–and it matters, because it is automation, far more than trade, that has eliminated so many American jobs. And that automation isn’t limited to spiffy robots on a factory floor; it is all around us.

When I first started to drive, gas station attendants pumped my gas and cleaned my windshield. These days, I pump my own gas, and the windshield gets cleaned when I go through the automated carwash. When I first practiced law, one legal secretary worked for two lawyers at most;  partners in the larger firms usually had their own secretary (and still dictated directly to her as she sat, steno pad in hand). Today, even in the “silk stocking” firms, lawyers type their own letters, emails and documents on their computers. Wealthier families often had maids and cooks; ever-improving home appliances have reduced the jobs available for such domestic help.

Old movies will sometimes feature the banks of telephone operators who used to direct calls, handle switching equipment and place “person to person” long-distance calls. My IPhone doesn’t require those switchboard operators. Speaking of telephones, those ubiquitous “telephone trees” are a decidedly mixed blessing, but most businesses use them rather than the human employees who used to answer the phones.

Remember the rows of bank tellers with eyeshades, who kept account ledgers by hand? Computers have replaced them.

I don’t know how much snail-mail has been replaced by email, but my guess is that we aren’t running short of postal workers.

As we anticipate an era of self-driving cars, we might consider the trade-off to come: greater safety and cost-effectiveness for individuals against eventual loss of employment for literally millions of truck, delivery van, taxi and Uber drivers.

Technological innovations make our lives more satisfying, our work more productive and our daily tasks more efficient–but they also take their toll on the workforce, and not just numerically. It’s true that many of these modern conveniences create new jobs, but rarely in the numbers they replace, and usually requiring a different and more demanding set of skills.

We are going to need some creative policies to deal with the accelerating and inevitable changes in the job market. Retraining–while undoubtedly a critical component–will not address the plight of the high-school dropout who lacks the capacity to learn more demanding skills, or the older displaced worker who cannot cope with radical change.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know we will continue to see machines displace human employees, and I’m pretty sure that bribing Carrier to delay moving 700 or so workers to Mexico is neither an answer nor a policy.


  1. Just to add to the these woes, we can look to the fact that physical resources also have a limit, even ignoring the environmental issues that go along with resource extraction. At some point we will be forced to stop trying to grow our economy 3% a year, which results in continually growing resource extraction. Think of three percent economic growth’s affect on resource usage as like compound interest on that resource usage. Simply unsustainable.

  2. “I’m pretty sure that BRIBING Carrier to delay moving 700 or so workers to Mexico is neither an answer nor a POLICY.”

    I agree it is not an answer, but bribing and other CORRUPT POLICES will be the “cornerstone” of a Trump/Pence administration.

  3. Those of you who are lucky enough to have already retired do not have the worries of those in my age group – upper 50’s (or younger). Your Social Security and Medicare are safe. The age to claim Social Security has been raised to 66.5 for me. You most likely have a pension, however small or large. I’m stuck with a 401K that lost a massive amount years ago that I can never gain back. Finally, it is nearly impossible for someone in my age group to find employment, no matter how skilled we are. If you are fifty or older you have been “put out to pasture” as far as the job market is concerned.

  4. Marv, you hit the nail on the head regarding the policies of Trump/Pence. We are already seeing it take place on a daily basis.

  5. That inexorable increase in automation has changed yet another area of our day to day living. The number and verity of people we interact with on a daily basis has dramatically decreased. No more small chats with a salesperson at the store because we buy so much on line, and it is delivered to us by a nameless guy dressed in brown. The turnover in the big box stores is so great that you never see the same face twice as you check out, and with self-check out systems you don’t see a person at all. While I see the same doctor at every visit, the nurse/aide is different every time too. I’ve never seen the pharmacist at Walgreen’s; he/she hides behind a wall as the ever changing sales clerks handle the transaction. Our mailman has changed three time this year. The owner of the gas station has yet to materialize, and there too, the clerks change every week. There is no paperboy. The few people that I know who have maids hired help through a company that sends out several women in a van who silently clean the whole house in an hours time and quietly slip away.

    When we talk derisively about people living in a bubble, perhaps we need to expand the number of people living there to include all of us. Without our knowing it much of that vital interaction with others from all walks of life has disappeared. No wonder we are such a divide nation.

  6. Someone will still need to build and maintain the computers, cars and other implements of 21st century life. Meanwhile, we had best start figuring out how we’re going to feed, clothe, house and provide healthare for those who have no means.

  7. Nancy; my Social Security COLA totaled $2.10 monthly, my Medicare payment increased $6.10 monthly so my actual SS income DROPPED $4.00. I am 79, deaf and disabled; my income is barely above the federal poverty level. I began looking through the hard to understand Medicare changes and decided to wait till – or if – I need specific medical care to know if it is covered.

    Sheila; I will again quote Alan Watts from the 1970’s; “Man is going to computerize himself out of existence.” We must admit that things like automatic washers and dryers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, etc., are beneficial. Has the manufacture of the automation machines/equipment offset the number of reduced “factory floor” workers at all? It seems that yearly, or more often, there are new phones, video and electronic game equipment as well as manufacture automation that has increased or been replaced by more advanced items on the market.

    Recent headlines regarding the possibility/PROBABILITY of Russian computer hacking our presidential election (did it effect local elections in Republican states?) and the massive Yahoo hacking must mean manufacture of protective devices or services are lacking. The legal system hasn’t caught up with technical or medical advances yet. I must admit that automatic deposit of my SS and PERF checks into my bank account is beneficial but…I got tired of fighting with bank employees against automatic deductions and banking on line due to millions of computer hacking reports. I already get warning notices from several banks (including my own bank) that there is “suspicious activity on my on line banking account” which I do not have. I mistakenly opened an ad for a $50 gift card from Amazon where I do have an account; this allowed several serious viruses to infect my hard drive. The notices are still coming; all I can do is delete them, Amazon does have an E-mail address to forward the bogus messages – the banks do not.

    Progress (automation) does not always mean improvement…especially in the job market and could it be the cause of the many thousands of recalls on everything from food to vehicles? Here is where that old saying comes into the equation, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

  8. One other thing, do what you can for your fellow citizens. Do not use those self-check lines at the Supermarket. They cost jobs, and, since you are given no discount for handling your own checkout, they benefit no one but the supermarket stockholders.

  9. I don’t believe there is any practical alternative to the problem of total automation. Yet, money will be made and taxes should be paid. That money should be distributed to every single person as an ‘income’. When everybody no longer has to worry about survival, we will learn that we can think and dream, experiment and perfect, and that we’ll be able to live with an unparalleled amount of freedom and happiness.
    Sound like a dream? Well, yes, it does, but it’s not unheard of. I believed it is even mentioned in one of our founding documents. What is it, er, uh, something about “pursuit of happiness” isn’t it?

  10. One reason I like this blog so much is that it comes out of Indiana which used to be the best in basketball, many years ago. The game has changed quite a bit from those days. Jacksonville is a football city, not a basketball city. It has always been that way.

    I might have mentioned before that my OLIGARCHIC FATHER was voted the best basketball player of his generation, here in Jacksonville. [I have to admit that I was a little quicker than he was, which he finally admitted on his death bed].

    The Tea Party is a MOVEMENT. It can only be neutralized by a movement whose leader can move QUICKER than the leader of their movement, who is NOW lead by a man named Donald Trump. And I have to say it wouldn’t take much to do that.

  11. One of the natural effects of the march toward automation will be an ever growing concentration of wealth at the top of the food chain. At some point we, as a nation, will have to decide whether we accept all the wealth at the very top, or if our tax structure will redistribute wealth to allow for an average American lifestyle that exceeds mere serfdom.

  12. I can tell you that Neoliberalism won’t be helpful at all. Free market policies which benefit the rich at the expense of the working class and poor is NOT the solution. Americans just eliminated the middle men and placed the beneficiaries of four decades of neoliberalism in the White House.

    If you thought oppression was bad before, just wait. As for the future of the working class, governments will have to implement a basic income model and restrict population growth because the number of jobs will only decrease. Africa will be the new Middle East as unemployment rates soar.

    From the World Economic Forum:

  13. We are now in a post-industrial economy. We have been headed here for 50 years, but in those 50 years we have done nothing to provide for this economy. What kinds of jobs will be available? How many of those jobs will we need? What skill sets are necessary to be employed in these new jobs? What training is required?

    Until we answer these and a hundred more questions, we will leave people behind.

  14. Marv; the city of Indianapolis is planning some sort of memorial/celebration to honor our beloved Pacers, once the Pride of Indianapolis. I don’t remember the Pacers groveling and begging for our tax dollars then; they do get assistance now from the Capital Improvement Board (CIB). Today, Indy like Jacksonville, is a football city with the Colts (6-7 record this season) costs local tax payers .30% of the CIB budget for maintenance on the Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts’ playhouse with the removable roof. That .30% figure came from Republican Paul K. Ogden recently on this blog. With football season in fall and winter; why was a removable roof (which was later added to stadium plans) needed? Construction of Lucas Oil Stadium was almost completed when planners suddenly realized they had not figured in maintenance or security to the cost. Quick budget readjustment was needed. Severe summer storms caused the roof to leak into the computer control area causing much damage; CIB footed that bill till the insurance could kick in – did it kick in? The Colts do not pay to use the stadium as other pro teams do for their home games; plus, they get a percentage of concession profits for those games.

    Irsay is worth millions, many of the players are paid in the millions but I am supporting Lucas Oil Stadium with my property taxes. Once the construction was completed, those jobs ended and our tax dollars continued going into the stadium and we will have to come up with those millions in tax ransom to keep the few hundred Carrier workers temporarily on the job as other jobs leave. What is wrong with this picture?

  15. Oooops; huge MEA CULPA regarding that percentage CIB pays for Lucas Oil Stadium maintenance…it should read 30%, that is thirty percent. Not .30%; I was thinking of my pitiful interest rate on CDs at PNC Bank…it sticks in my mind and my craw.

  16. “We are going to need some creative policies to deal with the accelerating and inevitable changes in the job market”. Going to? These policies should have been developed during the Reagan administration as median incomes peaked in the US in the late 70’s (look up the Census data). I was in Graduate business school in those days and my enrollment included a discounted subscription to Harvard Business Review. Inevitably, EVERY SINGLE ISSUE included articles on these topics, all of which were and still are closely related: manufacturing floor automation, supply-chain management and automation, strategic outsourcing, offshoring, and finally, maximizing shareholder value. If you want to know why no such public policies were pursued in the US, as they were in Germany and many other advanced economies, you only have to take note that the Dow Index is about to reach 20,000.

  17. Some thoughts on today’s blog include 1) computers can be used to build computers, 2) computers can be programmed to maintain themselves, 3) eventually, if taken to its logical conclusion, automation becomes self-realized in all respects. The only part of the equation that is within the human option to control is the power for those computers. Whether from fossil fuels as now or from renewable fuel, the people and the corporations that control the power source will continue to amass the wealth and associated political and social power that control confers. Guess who has been the driving force behind so much of the move to the fascist state we are about to have imposed on the U.S.? The Koch brothers and their cabal have worked for decades to control all resources associated with fossil fuel and now they have it firmly in hand. And we, the people, handed it to them on an orange platter.

  18. JD,

    “The Koch brothers and their cabal have worked for decades to control all resources associated with fossil fuel and now they have it firmly in HAND. And we, the people, HANDED it to them on an orange platter.”

    During the 50’s, while I was attending college in Philly, I joined an organization called HELPING HANDS. Wow.! Time does fly.

    Now my choices are being reduced to having only the GREEDY HANDS of the Koch Brothers and their buddies to look forward to.

  19. I have blogged on the issue(s) Sheila has raised today more than once in the past but not with an emphasis on the inevitable change in mode of production. Rather I raised the question of just how we are going to distribute the income from robotic production to humans who have no jobs because there aren’t any, of the question of how to take another look at the Protestant ethic of “no work, no pay” view of human worth and ancillary issues, all of which when combined pose an enormous socioeconomic problem to which no one (to my knowledge) has offered a plan for distribution of the economy’s income that works for all of us.

    Thus if most nearly all humans are unemployed and have no wherewithal, what does that do to demand in the marketplace? Are the owners of robotic production entitled to keep all profits (if any, considering the cratering of demand) to themselves or must they share such profits not out of the goodness of their capitalistic hearts but as a means of stoking demand and keeping a restless and worried society together? In short, how do we distribute the wealth of an automated ecomony with the humans who are doing nothing to produce such wealth?

    I wrote that if there are those who think welfare is bad these days, jut wait for the day when we either have massive “welfare” or a massive dying off of the population due to malnutrition, disease, and probably rioting and civil commotion as desperate humans scramble for food and other resources necessary for survival. I also wrote that the problem would be international in scope, citing the early reminder of such a spread of automated production of goods and services from an article I read where a Chinese industrialist said he was automating a factory in China due to the “high costs of labor.” I would expect such moves to be the norm elsewhere in our globalized economy as we move along (which would end the “cheap labor” advantage in trade treaties and the old rule of comparative advantage as well as many other old and cherished classical economic laws and long-held views), and finally, I wrote that the problem of matching human labor with production of goods and services in this new world of automation will be exacerbated by the increase in the human population itself (which would add to the non-productive pool of unemployed humans).
    Our politicians should be working on how to handle the upcoming crisis I have described above (and which we know is coming) rather than continually brawling about petty matters such as trade (which will soon be a moot issue absent the cheap labor component), bringing jobs back from overseas and other issues soon to be non-issues that will have no place in tomorrow’s world. So what’s the answer? I, Gerald E. Stinson, the know-it-all, don’t have a clue, but someone somewhere may have, perhaps a denizen of a think tank that can at least temporarily come off its propaganda bent and work on the most pressing issue of our time or at the latest tomorrow, i.e., how to fashion an economy that works for all in a new era as above described.

  20. The displacement of the “old economic order,” “ways of doing business,” “manufacturing” is, of course, constantly occurring and is nothing new in history. But at certain times, it reaches a “tipping point,” and occurs at a much faster pace; for one prime example, the change from a mainly agrarian economy to an industrial one brought on by the “industrial revolution.” But as Professor Kennedy observed with her “looking in the mirror” analogy, the changes always seems to sneak up on and surprise us human beings, who are busy just trying to cope and make it through each day.

    A personal example. Just the other day, I accompanied a friend inside a Chase Bank (Guilty; I rarely go inside banks anymore mainly using ATM’s and on-line banking). There was a bank of about 12 “teller’s windows” along the far wall. All but one was occupied by a little more sophisticated, than the ones in the lobby and outside, ATM computer, which could do just about everything a human teller could do. Somewhat tellingly, the few customers, who were there, were all in line waiting to see the one human teller available.

    History teaches, if anyone is still interested in it anymore, that these periodic upheavals wreck havoc on the workers who formerly filled those jobs. History, unfortunately, provides few good answers about how to help those displaced and left behind. As history also teaches, most of those workers “displaced” will never adapt to the “new order,” and will simply be left behind for good.

    In previous upheavals, generally new and younger workers, who could better adapt and be trained to do the new work available, filled the new jobs available. The “industrial revolution,” as it evolved over time, provided plenty of jobs. And partially as a result of Henry Ford’s progressive idea that workers should be paid enough to be able to buy his cars, but mainly due to unions winning the right to collectively bargain for workers (but only after a hard fought and bitter war with the factory owners) many of those jobs provided decent enough wages and benefits to allow many to enter the “middle class.”

    Unfortunately, the present “automation” revolution is not only shrinking the number of jobs available, but also the lesser number of new jobs being created by it all require much more education, skills, and training than most of the displaced workers have or can hope to obtain.

    I, too, have no brilliant answers or insight on how to help those displaced in this current upheaval, other than to have a humane governmental “safety net” in place to at least allow these workers and their families some chance of survival (Fat chance of that in the Trump/Pence/Tea Party/Koch world). If history repeats itself — and it often does if we don’t learn from it — most of these folks will simply be left to their own ends, and be left behind with little effort made by governments to help them. But in reading through the previous comments to today’s blog, although I don’t think anyone outright used the word, some form of Socialistic Capitalism, such as that in place in many European countries, is the only obvious answer (HELLO, Bernie!).

  21. It’s hard for me to tell sometimes if I am objective or defensive but I have a whole career behind me of innovating in automation and I believe that it’s not bad but more importantly it’s not optional.

    We only have an economy nowadays in the context of competing with the rest of the world. Our choice in doing that is between low wages and automation which makes high wages competitive. The only choice is can we continue to do it first?

    That is so far beyond the Trump administration who march only to the secret of a good economy is to make wealthy people wealthier which has simply never turned out to be true.

    So they have a choice between learning what’s effective or going with what benefits them the most.

    God help us.

  22. Automation to a degree has had an impact. As a Boomer I have witnessed many of the changes, in offices, phone company, gas stations and retail outlets from automation.

    My concern is with the so-called Free Trade. We have had here in the USA a massive Industrial Relocation. The computer, printer, and monitor I use are all made in China. The clothes I wear from hats down to shoes are all made off shore. The Toaster in the kitchen is made in China. The tooth picks in the cupboard are made in China. The toothpaste in my bathroom cupboard in made in Mexico. I would suspect it would almost impossible to find Christmas toys that are made in the USA. Those jerseys that people wear with their favorite professional sports team are not made in the USA, by Union labor.

    The American Worker has been sold out to the lowest bidder.

  23. When I told a friend in the therapy pool that my Mother suddenly appeared in the mirror, she said it happened all the time to her. She always says Hello, Bessie……and goes on with her day with a little lift in her walk…..

  24. This reminds me of some of the prophetic science fiction novels/stories that describe a dystopia in which humans are dominated by machines. There’s a Star Trek voyager episode where aliens steal the ship and leave the crew on a volcanic planet with no technology. I have a flip phone, no GPS( I don’t travel much) and sometimes I think technology makes life more complicated, not simpler. I also think it tends to alienate us from one another at times. What are all the people who have an intelligence other than that which a college education requires going to do ie artists, mechanics, farmers etc. ? I miss having someone pump my gas for me, that human connection. I miss family farms. I wish we could gather more and share our stories face-face or sing together around a warm fire. I think we have been made poorer by assembly line production because there’s no sense of craftsmanship. I probably sound old-fashioned but now that I am 65 years old I don’t care if I do.

  25. Yeah…. Just after she died and on for some time, every morning I could only reply, “Hello, Anne” to the person I saw in the mirror. It eventually faded. Only recently I have realized that I am living in my grandmother’s room (I mostly remember her as a racist snob who greated my mother abomidably), but, she must have had some sort of good taste, right? It really sneaks up!

    More soberly, I am hoping, that once this paroxism of retrograde, no-nothing, hatefulness has passed, humans will turn toward some sort of guaranteed annual income. So called conservatives will need to pass also. Some how, barely, I am hopeful. We’ll see, or due to my age, most of you all will see after I am gone. Very sad to accept this situation as the final chapter in an individual life, isn’t it?

    Best wishes to all of you!

  26. One item of automation that to me explains the state of international trade way more than trade agreements is containerized logistics. Overseas shipping is as close to free as you can get.

    “The transport cost element in the shelf price of goods varies from product to product, but is ultimately marginal. For example, transport costs account for only 2% of a television shelf price and only 1.2% of a kilo of coffee.”

    “As you see in the below picture, the typical cost to a consumer in the United States of transporting crude oil from the Middle East, in terms of the purchase price of gasoline at the pump, is about half a US per litre.”

    “The typical cost of transporting a tonne of iron ore from Australia to Europe by sea is about USD12.”

    Once shipping costs got that low we became a global marketplace. No matter what trade policies are in effect.

  27. We can emphasize new industries where new jobs can be created… such as renewable energy. We do not have to be bound by existing energies (any more than commerce by water canals, which drove Indiana to bankruptcy). Unfortunately, too many people are looking back rather than forward. Is this making America “great”?

  28. When I entered the professional workforce I always had the capable support of a great clerical administrative staff which I enjoyed very much.

    When I retired I had close to none. Why? Mostly through computer automation that allowed me to perform as effectively as “we” did formerly.

    Is that bad or good? Bad for the old clerical staff for sure but many of them expanded their skills and remained competitive and employed.

    My kids appear to have learned that. The competition being global rather than local now is more intense and continuously upgrading skills is table stakes.

    I personally think that the bottom line can be learned from Mother Nature, evolution and natural selection.

    Adapt to reality instead of expecting it to adapt to you.

  29. Nancy
    Re: jobs and age

    If you’re over 40, you are in a protected category as defined by the EEOC. Females also are in a protected category as defined by the EEOC.

    I’m sure there are qualifiers written in the fine print for both the over 40 and the female categories.

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