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Marxian catastrophe? - technolgy marginalizing middle class

  1. May 3, 2012 #1
    I'm looking for Links, books, and terms associated with the increase in mechanization, automatization, and efficiency of future economies. Think of the future where people who work at supermarkets, fast food chains, the postal service, or as truck drivers, construction workers, landscapers etc... all lose there job to robots. Though many people would still be needed in professional services, and its unlikely we would want robocops, it seems as if there wouldn't be enough jobs to go around and money would continue to saturate at the top of the socioeconomic strata. I'm not a socialist or even a liberal, but it seems a parsimonious enough suggestion that somebody other than communists must have studied this.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 3, 2012 #2


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    I too would be interested in this, I have looked several times before but not found anything satisfactory (though if it is fiction you want this short story deals with the matter in a fairly simplistic yet entertaining way).

    Personally I'm not sure that individualist capitalist economies have the capacity to deal with what you are suggesting. Conventionally a worker whose skills have been made obsolete should seek less/unskilled labour and retrain in different skills but if automation has made swathes of jobs obsolete then no only will remaining jobs become less available but even with retraining someone wouldn't be very competative (because there are many more unemployed people who may have retrained).

    The scenario is similar to that of a post-industrial society however in your scenario most service has been automated as well. Other than regulation to share out the remaining jobs (i.e. mandatory holidays/maximum working hours) and social infrastructure and welfare to share the resources produced I'm not sure what can be done.
    Last edited: May 3, 2012
  4. May 3, 2012 #3


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    Historically, this has been a problem on an industry-specific level, but not a national level. So I think before asking/predicting if it is going to happen, one has to explore why it hasn't happened yet.
  5. May 3, 2012 #4


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    It could be argued that in various locations this has happened for unskilled working class labourers. Industrial towns where manufacturing has been outsourced or automated to cut down the workforce. It hasnt happened to other sectors either due to:
    • Lack of technology
    • No economical viability
    • Having a human is part of the service
  6. May 3, 2012 #5
    It is likely to happen to education very soon, considering that most subjects can now be studied online for free (which is in essence, "automating education"). But there is still heavy political intertia in this issue. Many average people also do not know about online learning.

    There are also limits to what can and can not be mechanized. I suppose most grunt work can be mechanized. Many jobs however are far from being mechanized. Still, it is a very Kafkaesque future for all of us.

    Sal actually talks about this in one of his videos. According to him, most "mechanical work" will be replaced by computers and humans will be left to do only the "creative" work. The humans who cannot do creative work, either out of lack of interest or lack of talent, methinks what will become of them?

    And it appears that "creative" work will soon come to be defined as "work that cannot be automated by a machine". The only subject I can think of that cannot fathomably be automated is philosophy... then again, who knows?


    It does not necessarily have to be a Marxian outcome however. But many people passionate in their jobs will have to find new jobs.

  7. May 3, 2012 #6


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    Indeed, when I said "industry specific", it really also meant localized. There are a lot of decimated one-industry factory towns (just ask turbo). The hardship comes from the difficulty in starting over in a new career, combined with a difficulty in moving due to loss of housing value.

    But my point was, despite nearly 200 years of growing job loss due to industrialization, unemployment has not become a systemic problem.
  8. May 3, 2012 #7
    There is some historical debate as to whether this happens in the short term, (see for instance the living conditions of the early industrial revolution). However, in the long term, gains in efficiency usually lead to a higher standard of living.
  9. May 5, 2012 #8
    I think the solution lies in that humans always want more. Some technologies reduce workforce, but others increase workforce. If you look at the last 200 years in 50 year segments there is always new "stuff" that people own now that wasn't around in the previous 50 years.
    The other part is, that almost no industry becomes fully automated. As in there is still some people working in the industry even if it is substantially less then before. This is offset, at least partially, by new industries.
    The only way I see it becoming a systemic problem, is if industires become fully automated. I.E. robots (I mean good ones, not the ones we have now). But for that to happen, I think we are going to need some level of real AI, so it is not too worriesome right now.
    Even then, there are still industries that, at least as far as I can see, people should always have a job in, marketing sports etc.
  10. May 5, 2012 #9
    It seems strange to me that people worry about this. Shouldn't more efficiency mean more for all? I know in the short term people can try to extract more profits and not share the benefits but the 1800s truly showed the impact of technology on living standards:
  11. May 6, 2012 #10
    IMHO it is easier to see the jobs being lost then it is the jobs being created, especially as you get older. If you have a friend that loses a job because his position is no longer needed, you see it first hand. That same person might not be getting into a new industry as he might not have the training.
    Thats my best guess anyways. Young people get into the newer industries, while older people see their industries fazed out.
  12. May 25, 2012 #11
    I almost never respond to threads in this forum, but I’ve been looking at this one for a couple of weeks now. It speaks to me, so I’ll add my two cents.

    Everyone who has already answered highlights good points to consider, but I think we need to consider it a bit more deeply. Certainly we have had problems like this in the past and recovered, but what is happening today is different due to an extremely rapid and unprecedented rate of change of just about everything.

    My job over the last 30 years was highly specialized. Last year it came to a screeching halt when they shut the place down and we all got laid off. The prospect of getting another job like it is extremely slim. I’m approaching 60, past the age when most people are willing or able to make huge career changes while maintaining anything close to the same income level. Most my friends of about my age are figuring out how to simply retire early with a lower standard of living than they had hoped for. It is a retirement that will require supplemental income from Home Depot or where ever.

    I fared better than most because I’ve always known that this would end someday, so I’ve always taken every opportunity to learn new things that might someday help me earn a living by other means. Now I’m in an entirely different field, one that I was completely unqualified for. But they offered to train me, which is now into the ninth month. They plan to give me my first real work in about another month. The base pay is the same as my old job, and the benefits are the same. But most who have found jobs have not done as well. Many of the touch labor workers are earning a third of what they did before with no benefits, or they are hustling to bring in some cash any way they can. One former technician is butchering game for the hunters out of his house, and he is doing better than most.

    But there are plenty of jobs available. The trouble is finding qualified people to take them. Failing that, they are looking for someone who gives them good reason to believe that they are easily trainable, as they are doing with me. The most aggressive recruiters at the job fares were the Detroit auto companies who came all the way down from to Florida to find engineers who can design manufacturing robots. They have lain off thousands of workers back home who will never get their jobs back. They are the people this thread is all about.

    We are currently manufacturing more and exporting more as a country than we have ever done before. I’ve seen quite a lot of it come back from India and China. But we are doing it with far fewer people than ever before, and those people are much more highly educated and skilled than the factory workers of the past. The only direction that will change is that we will produce even more with less. Manufacturing used to be a place where someone with a low level of education could learn to do something fairly simple, get paid very well, and keep doing the same thing for 40 years until they retired with a nice pension. Those days are gone, and they are never returning. We currently have nothing to replace it with in our economic system to pay people with little education very well for productive work. If they are working at all, they are mostly in low paid service jobs.

    But as our economy changes in this direction, we have plenty of opportunities to provide productive work with good pay. That will require a structural change in our system. If anyone would like to discuss what those changes might be and how we might bring them about, then we can continue this thread.
  13. May 29, 2012 #12
    Unfortunately, I cannot find an excellent yet rather alarming article over on Project Syndicate in which different economist's takes on the issue you identify are discussed (saw it several months ago). IIRC, the consensus (of a small sample) was that indeed, if anything the hollowing out of the middle ground will accelerate.

    In the West this is owed to both the effect of technologically-driven changes in capital goods, as well as to the massive coming on line of semi-skilled labor elsewhere. Now it is Asia's turn at some of these jobs, but increasingly these will shift to Africa and other areas. In fact, emerging middle classes in places like China may find that their time in the sun is far more short-lived than ours has been.

    The fundamental divide among low-paying service jobs and highly skilled labor or professional positions, coupled with rapid increases in the cost of education, is and will create high barriers to social mobility, so among the "things to do about it" I think we will need to finally get serious about education reform, not only in quality and availability but also in reinforcing life-long learning and encouraging career change late in life.

    A dark twist on this is that in those places where we observe a large pool of highly educated people who vastly outnumber available jobs, such as Egypt, we find the sort of frustration that comes from glimpsing paradise from the outside and being denied entry. It is no surprise, then, that many terrorists are frustrated engineers with degrees and no jobs. So, whatever is done to improve the skills of workers in the West will still need to be done in a way such as not to massly overproduce graduates nor create false expectations.

    Though it may sound odd, I think we may need to encourage somewhat of a return to agriculture, in the form of smaller, self-sustaining, energy-efficient, family-run operations. Nothing massive, but say a move toward 10-15% of total employment. This implies advances in both renewable energy and agronomics I am not qualified to judge, so this may be nothing of a solution at all. Were it possible, urban design of smaller city centers surrounded by energy- and food-productive land is intuitively appealing.

    On the positive side, advances in 3d printing for design to finished product might allow for a turn away from mass production and global distribution, for reasons of cost, energy, and time. This could give rise to a sort of mass customization trend that may actually employ more labor for local assembly of ad-hoc goods.

    In terms of social policy, at some point we will need to solve the basic issue of how a large mass of minimum wage workers can receive both adequate health care and retire with a very modest yet sufficient income, financed necessarily by a smaller minority of high earners. Regardless of one's political philosophy, failure to address this adequately is asking for a dystopian nightmare.
  14. May 30, 2012 #13


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    This is worrying if true, it suggests that whilst wealth disparity between rich and poor nations may decrease the disparity between rich and poor within a country may increase.
    Education always needs investment, it's one of the most important things a country can do though steps need to be taken to ensure that underemployment is not made corrospondingly worse and that education is not simply treated as a means to get a job.
    This as well as highly educated people working in jobs far below their skill, people in jobs with insufficient hours and those whose jobs are psychologically unfufilling. It worries me that in the west few countries are focusing on underemployment and their steadily rising Gini coefficients (though I think that all countries should continually invest in and utilise better metrics for measuring societal health such as GNH)
    Whilst I am all for urbanisation especially related to eco-city design and vertical farming I don't think that raising employment in agriculture is desirable or practical. Thanks to automation from the industrial revolution onwards in the west the percentage of the population working in agriculture has massively fallen. Now it is down to less than 1% of the population whereas it used to be ~25% (IIRC). I just don't see how we can raise employment by a factor of ten without being ten times less efficient or producing ten times more food. Also getting back to underemployment issues why would so many people want to work in agriculture? It's a difficult job that's not for everyone.

    Personally I think that as automation continues apace and if Jevon's paradox tops out in most fields then western countries will have to increasingly invest in social policies to ensure that the masses who can't get work (through no fault of their own) can live productive, prosperous lives. Possibly we'll have to go so far as to regulate maximum working hours per week, maximum wage, replace most forms of welfare with BIGs or GMIs and employ increasingly progressive taxation. The aim of all this would be to ensure that everone had access to a small amount of work (at least) which in combination with increasingly productive automation and welfare policies would be enough to live comfortable and happy lives. I know to some people this sounds like some sort of socioeconomic hell but hopefully that can be worked through. And it's not all public sector doom and gloom.
    This could be a great asset to the co-operative movement. Local areas could form co-op private enterprises with the aim of providing affordable, customisable goods to the local people via a small shop sized fablab. Combined with something like the OSE project and this could have huge positive benefits for small (and often remote) communities accross the globe.
    I've been over this a bit above but regarding healthcare this indicates that you are from the US? I know there are significant cultural and political hurdles in your nation but there do exist many different and good models of universal healthcare that could probably be taken off the shelf and tailored for your needs. Once the hurdles are jumped of course.
    Last edited: May 30, 2012
  15. May 30, 2012 #14
    Two very excellent posts followed mine.

    My sister is a high school principal who has been sorting and compiling data for three decades. We spend more than any other country on education. Yet official metrics show that we are not doing so well. A closer look at the data tells another story because we are the only country that tries to educate everyone equally well. Other places only educate those most likely to do well. When she looked at 30 years of data only for those students likely to be educated elsewhere, the data shows that our education system is the best in the world. In fact, her data shows that it really does not matter what you do to these students, they will excell anyway. It does not cost much to educate them because they are highly motivated to learn and do well.

    I offer no hypothesis as to why some do so well while others do not. I only recognize it as a fact, and propose that we must evolve our economic system to give them good jobs in which they can be productive.

    I propose several ways of doing that.

    Energy is a rapidly growing field. I see new technologies developing that will in the next few decades make energy costs, availability, and pollution all non-issues. I also see massive opportunity to create millions on new jobs of every skill level. This is where I've started my new career.

    Health care is another rapidly growing field that will hire people of every field and skill level.

    We also need to spend trillions repairing and upgrading our infrastructure. Again, every skill level in many fields.
    Last edited: May 30, 2012
  16. May 30, 2012 #15
    Income disparity growth will be true if the current trend we are talking about continues; i.e., technological change spells the eventual end, in practical terms, of semi-skilled and much skilled labor, eventually on a global scale. What might break the trend somewhat is going more radically local, and as you point out, no reason remote, too. Information now flows enough to enable, say, sophisticated component design sitting in a yurt.

    Mebbe we put these musings together into something resembling a back-and-forth between education or training and work. Reductions in working hours at one career stage might be offset by increasing training backed by BMI-like supplements?

    (I am an ex-pat in Spain, writing for what I take on Physicsforums to be a largely American readership.)

    Left this for the end since we can easily go OT. I realize it sounds far-fetched, yet having worked as a cowboy in WV, I remember just how much of our vegetables were from a small plot. Fed 6 for a year, except for the meat and milk, which we got from neighbors (our cattle went to market). Much later in life, I lived in a small village in the mountains near Segovia, Spain, and witnessed just how many people essentially got 80% of their food from small plots and game, yet held day jobs. Fast forward the tech and organization, and I could see a lot of folk producing a healthy surplus of food and perhaps energy, whilst holding jobs today considered underemployment, but now making ends meet.

    In fact, it is how I plan to retire, especially since for whatever reasons, not all related to stupidity, I will not have much at all to retire on.
  17. May 31, 2012 #16
    So far I see good agreement that we have a problem, and that it will get worse if we continue in our current direction. So we can leave that and talk about solutions.

    I see one proposed solution about which we also have agreement. So we can leave that and talk about what else we can do. That one agreement is that we need to do our best on education. We have been doing that for a long time and I have no doubt that we will do even better in the future. But that is part of the problem because some will always be left behind, and the better our education system gets, the bigger the gap between the highly educated and those who are not.

    One thing to note is that even many who are educated are still at a serious disadvantage. We and a other engineering firms advertise for new engineers every week, but we hire a tiny percentage of those who apply. The reason is that few engineering graduates are able to be highly productive engineers. We have learned how to recognize those who can, and we hire all of those who apply as quickly as we can. This is why I got hired. I've done well in all of my previous jobs, which were highly varied so they knew that I also had the ability to learn new things quickly. So even though I had no education or experience in this field, they paid me top dollar for an opportunity to trane me. So even many who have all the paper to indicate a high level of technical education may still be left behind.

    What else can we do?
  18. May 31, 2012 #17
    I'd like to propose something else to consider. Right now we have billion of government money going into wind, solar, and alcohol. All these are therefore booming industries. But everyone working on them expect them to go bust as soon as the subsidies dry up because they are not economicaly viable without them. Whatever solutions might actually solve this problem must be creative and innovative, and be economically viable without governmental help. The only help the government can provide that could be useful would be to set up the business and legal environment to promote private development.

    Nobody with an idea that can be very profitable is going to accept government money to develop it because that comes with the requirement to release your intellectual property to the public domain. Also, such ideas are pretty easy to finance with private money because they have the potential of making the investors very rich. Right now I see billions of private money being spent on such ideas, some of which will solve all our current energy and pollution concerns. It will just take time to developed new technologies. But since there is now such a strong business incentive, it will happen.
  19. Jun 8, 2012 #18
    That's good reasoning.

    There is a product called "Merit" which is remarkably good at killing white grubs found in the lawn.

    Now banned from residential use in Ontario, only organic options are available. Specifically Nematodes.

    29.99, cultivated in a petri dish, and only 60% effective according to the specified application rate.

    imo, this is why. Industries "adjust", markets shift. Shifting to a more renewable based economy, such as service or bio-engineering, or what ever is sustainable is a good direction and I think more/less the current direction.

    There aren't as many stone masons today, and there are many more structures.

    And yea, that could leave a whole generation "jobless" as you mentioned (industry specific, auto industry ect). Doubt they'll starve or freeze to death though.

    I wish I had a crystal ball for this, I would love to know what mon-fri 9-5 looks like in 500yrs, probably archaic.
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