Who Cheated Us Out of Our Amazing Future?
At least as far back as the 1950s, people were talking about how automation would mean that in the future, we'd only have to work 20 hours a week to support ourselves — freeing up the rest of our time for recreational or creative pursuits.
The technology came through, but the lifestyle didn't. In any field that's been amenable to the application of technology, worker productivity has increased drastically, but I don't know two people who're working 20-hour weeks and devoting the rest of their time to their art.
So what happened?
Rising Standards of Living
In 1950, about 30% of the average household budget went to food. In 2009, only 14% went to food. So for that category of spending, the utopian future actually did materialize — a consumer only needed to work half as many hours to pay for food in 2009 as in 1950.
The same was true in one other large category: clothing. Households had to allocate 12% of their spending to apparel in 1950, but only 4% in 2009 — only one-third as many hours needed to be worked to cover the cost of clothing.
The other large spending categories don't show a similar pattern — except maybe they do, if you dig down a bit. Instead of choosing to work fewer hours, we've worked the extra hours in order to get more and better stuff.
Housing took 30% of a household's spending in 1950 and it took 42% in 2009 — but there was a huge difference in size and quality. In 1950 the average housing unit was much smaller — about half the size. It lacked many of the accouterments that virtually all houses and apartments have now. It wouldn't have had air conditioning and might well not have had central heating; many didn't even have indoor plumbing. Most households also lacked many of the small appliances that we take for granted nowadays — mixers and vacuum cleaners were rare; microwaves, blenders, and breadmakers unheard of.
Transportation took 13% versus 16% now, but improvements there have been at least as remarkable as those in housing — practically everyone owns a car now, and the cars run well for many years with minimal maintenance. In 1950 only about three-fifths of households had a car (only the wealthy had two cars), and those cars wore out in just a few years. Carpooling was ordinary, and many people still commuted by bus or rail.
In the 1950s, the average household had to allocate 85% of its spending to cover the basic necessities — food, clothing, shelter, transportation. If you can downscale your housing and transportation to what was typical for 1950, the same standard of living could be purchased now for about 40% of spending.
So we really did get our magical future where we only had to work half as many hours to live a comfortable, middle-class (1950s) lifestyle. Except we chose to live a luxurious twenty-first century lifestyle instead.
But there's more to it than that, because most people didn't really get a choice. Yes, they could have cut their spending to get by on just half their income, but the option to work half as many hours for half the pay was largely not available.
Greed and Laziness
Instead of the future the utopians hoped for, as technology has made it possible to do more work with fewer people, employers have let workers go. (And, as technology has made it possible to do work overseas where workers are cheaper, they've moved production overseas and cut their domestic workforce even more.)
At one level, you might say the answer is simply greed — since the 1970s, the gains due to automation have gone all to the providers of the capital that financed it, and none to the workers whose work has been automated. Still, one man's greed is another man's ordinary good business practice, so that's not a completely satisfying answer.
I think there are two other aspects.
Part of the answer is that managers are lazy. (Or, if you prefer, clever.) They could hire twice as many half-time workers, but that turns out to be a lot of extra work for them.
There's the overhead of running a payroll, of keeping track of (and following) the ever-changing laws and regulations on employment, managing them on a day-to-day basis, doing performance appraisals, dealing with turnover, etc. Some of that overhead is fixed as soon as you add employee #1, but a lot of it ends up being multiplied by the number of employees you've got.
The upshot is that employers prefer having the smallest number of employees possible (and working them as hard as possible), as opposed to having a larger number of employees who work part-time.
The employees themselves, of course, have diverse perspectives on this. Some are perfectly happy working very long hours — especially those who get paid by the hour, but also those who are trying to build careers. Others would much rather work fewer hours for less pay.
Under the influence of big companies, government has also weighed in on the side of "full-time" employment in the sense that many rules to protect workers rights to pensions and other benefits only apply (or apply more strongly) to full-time workers.
The upshot is that common practices, together with the incentives that businesses face, largely close off the opportunity for the happy futuristic utopia that we were promised.
Take Back Your Future!
The productivity gains are real. If you want to live a 1950s lifestyle, you can do it for about half the cost a household would have had to pay in 1950.
Jobs that support such a lifestyle are more limited, but that doesn't mean that there are none. And if living the 1950s fantasy of techno-utopia appeals to you, it doesn't matter if there are a lot of such jobs. You just need to find one.
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