A fascinating piece in last Sunday’s New York Times provided a clear picture of how automation is changing the world:
This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.
“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.
Even Chinese companies are beginning to recognize that robotic factories are the wave of the future:
Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.
Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”
As Via Meadia has noted before, industry is gradually returning to the United States, thanks in part to the domestic energy revolution and in part to American experience with technology and high-end manufacturing. This is certainly a welcome development, but it will not revive mass middle-class employment in manufacturing; robots, and not people, will be doing most of the work.
Just as fewer and fewer people grew food in the 20th century even as more and more people ate better, so too in the 21st century will fewer people be making the stuff that more people have more of.
The future of employment is in services and the production of experiences. Think of how more people are now employed creating a restaurant experience (service, menus, decor) than in growing the food that you eat there. Rather than try to revive the manufacturing economy of the mid-20th century, economic policy ought to find a way to be pro-jobs in a post-manufacturing world.
Politically, the country doesn’t seem ready for this kind of debate yet. Both parties feel the need to appear as if they have a plan to create boatloads of high-wage manufacturing jobs, but ultimately the post-manufacturing jobs discussion is the most important one to have.