At the New York Times Economix blog, David Leonhardt explores what he calls The Great Shift, which is pretty well summed up by the two charts shown here. We have covered this before but it bears repeating.
You know, even if machines weren’t coming along and snatching up all the good, reliable subordinate work — which they are — conditioning people into a state of permanent subordination doesn’t sound like all that noble of an objective. Not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with being subordinate to someone else; one of the commenters to Church’s piece points out that the military, for example, wouldn’t work very well without the concept of subordination. (It also comes in handy when rearing children.) But we don’t train soldiers (or children) never to think for themselves; ideally they are given a context into which they balance doing what they are told with doing what they believe, in the moment, to be the best course of action. Ideally, there is an objective to be achieved — take the hill; learn how to successfully get through the day without relying on a diaper — that both orders / instructions passed down and actions taken on one’s own initiative will work towards achieving.
This story needs a follow-up. Two years ago we were surprised (or were we?) to learn that a substantial percentage of first-year students at a fine state university in Indiana had no clear idea why they were there.
Workplace subordination, in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, had major operational efficiencies. Additionally, the destruction it inflicted on human capital was there for poets and philosophers to observe and mourn, but it never threatened to cripple the economy, because its standardization effects outweighed its costs. Assembly-line workers, in truth, didn’t need to be creative to do their jobs. What has changed is that machines are taking over the subordinate work, and will soon enough capture all of it. If the job can be done by a person in subordination, that means that perfect completion can be specified (as opposed to creative work where perfect completion is not even well-defined) and if it can specified, it can be programmed, and the work can be given over to robots. Soon enough, that will happen.
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