On the productivity problem

I’ve discussed the productivity ratchet before. To summarize, automation and other supports make people potentially more productive. A recession forces a cut of employees, and the remaining are still performing at below potential. The recession recovery forces remaining employees to approach their potential, and because of this there’s no need to rehire until the company has not only recovered but grown past the previous production requirements.

We’ve actually seen this, though in a lot slower motion. It used to take about 80% of the nation’s employees to grow the food needed to feed everyone (plus some export). Today it takes less than 1%. In another case, we peaked at about 55% of the nation working in manufacturing; factories producing hard goods to wear and use. Today that’s down to 20%, and even if we enforced a 100% US manufacture it’s estimated only about 30% of potential employees would find work.

Today, almost 80% of our workforce is in service. Not just fast food service and receptionists and help desk workers but bankers and attorneys and doctors. If you don’t grow food and you don’t make things, you’re service.

And what’s noteworthy is that automation is going to force many of those jobs out of existence, too. Heck, it’s already happening. As one consideration, every small office HAD to have a secretary-typist. The computer’s word processor has drastically reduced that requirement. The position’s not gone, but there are a lot fewer than there were a decade ago, much less 20 or 30 years ago.

Some areas I see getting major cuts include teachers and librarians and food staff. I see major changes coming to the medical profession.

Wait, I need to digress. There are some iPhone apps that will monitor some basic health statistics and send them to your doctor. There are parallel apps that will let the doctor set parameters so if the numbers go outside a range she gets an alert. That’s just one. Consider, just for a moment, that every office today needs at least one insurance specialist to get all the medical practices properly coded for the applicable insurance. While that seems a lot, consider that five years ago there were almost twice as many — many of the codings are becoming ‘universal’ and set to common standards. Electronics replacing paper filing will also have impacts. Easily 2/3 of people in the medical business aren’t medical practioners. And there are indicators that some of the practioner work is facing productivity effects as well.

We are facing, within a generation, the need to re-examine our attitudes about work. There are going to be businesses where you MUST work long hours — mostly self-owned businesses, and even then mostly in agriculture and manufacturing. But for the vast majority of people, the cultural choice is going to be either everyone works less or we have a lot more people who don’t work at all — not because they can’t work, but because the people working are producing more than enough for everyone and there just isn’t NEED.

It’s coming whether we face it or not. If we ignore it, however, we will back into it in the most uncomfortable fashion we can, denying the need even years after the decision has been forced upon us. Which means we’re going to have a bunch of nastiness for those who hate us, both internal and external, to use as wedges.


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