One of the biggest thing that strikes you about the Detroit Industry Murals are the sheer number of bodies—pushing, pulling, turning, bodies everywhere. A modern version of the Detroit Industry Murals would include no bodies, of course, just a lot of robots. But wait! All may not be lost.
In The New Yorker this week, Sheelah Kolhatkar has a long riff on the robots, and just what automation is doing to American manufacturing, including, as you know, sending low-skilled workers in the auto industry and others into lower-paying and less reliable jobs, in industries like fast-food and retail. And while robots have come to dominate whole industries, there is a small nugget of good news: the number of people employed in manufacturing increased last year for the for first time in decades.
Why? Because it’s starting to make some sense—and cost less—to manufacture things here, as efficiency increases because of the robots. So while there might be vastly fewer jobs overall, there may be a future of more jobs doing things like pushing the “on” button (and troubleshooting when things go wrong.)
From The New Yorker:
Michael Araten, the current C.E.O. of K’Nex Brands and the grandson-in-law of Rodon’s founder, told me that business had been relatively stable until the financial crisis arrived, and sales plunged. Rodon laid off around forty people, about a third of its workforce. Araten said that when business picked up the discussion quickly turned to how the company could rehire those people. One obvious solution presented itself: K’Nex could bring its manufacturing back to the United States so long as it could remain price-competitive with the China-sourced toy companies. K’Nex managers concluded that reshoring was feasible, but they would have to automate as much of the process as possible.
That’s great! What happened to everyone in the meantime, though.
The economy was generating wealth, but almost all of it seemed to be going to the wealthy. The official unemployment rate has dropped to 4.2 per cent in the United States—its lowest level in ten years—and the economy is expanding, but wages for most workers have scarcely budged.
In 2015, the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton identified a surprising data pattern that reflects these economic fault lines, finding that mortality rates for middle-aged white non-Hispanic Americans with only a high-school diploma have been increasing since the late nineteen-nineties. They attribute this trend to “deaths of despair” tied to the long-term loss of economic opportunity, particularly blue-collar jobs, and to possibly related factors such as opioid abuse.
Oh. You can read the whole thing here.