With the labor market already in so much trouble, it's hard to imagine things getting worse. But some experts are predicting that the tumult will continue--and perhaps worsen--in the decades ahead.
My own favorite dire view of the economic future comes from Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano." It's a world in which automation has advanced to the point where only a handful of managers and technicians are needed to keep consumer and defense goods streaming off the production lines in a cycleless pattern of economic growth. There's also a large and dispirited standing army and a small class of artisans and service workers--writers, painters, bartenders and the like--living on the fringes of society.
Everyone else is a member of the "Reeks and Wrecks"--the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps. They putter around the cities and countryside doing minor maintenance work in outsized battalions and with primitive tools. The state provides all the trappings of suburban life--replacements are timed to avoid perturbations in the production process--and they get a small allowance for recreation and luxuries. But the Reeks and Wrecks are strictly excess baggage and they know it. Everyone is very depressed. Even the managers.
Despite the new warnings of technological revolution, it's a long and probably unlikely way to the world of "Player Piano." The nation has weathered many automation scares before. In retrospect, each new wave of technology has done far more good than harm, raising living standards and creating more jobs than it destroyed.
Each of these inundations, however, has left ruined lives and depressed communities in its wake--New England is only now recovering from the postwar exodus of the textile industry, and the ghettoes of the North still harbor the descendants of farmworkers displaced by mechanization. This time, the changes may come still faster. The United States must now compete in a free-wheeling world market with lots of competition for both the low-skill, labor-intensive jobs that we've exported in the past and the high- technology jobs that used to replace them.
Workers are also up against far more formidable competition from the machines. Thanks to the microprocessor, computers can now store and process vast quantities of data in dime-sized components at a fraction of the cost of 10 years ago. In the factory, computers are taking over every phase of the production process from designing equipment to ordering raw materials and checking output quality. On the factory floor, the robots are multiplying. Some are just glorified machine tools, but others are distinctly humanoid. They're not exactly cute, but they can "see" and "feel" their way through tasks, and when they're told to do something different they don't call the shop steward. Computers are also invading the service world, replacing bank tellers, clerks, stenographers.
These changes won't come overnight. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the largest number of new jobs over the next decade will be in traditional occupations-- secretaries, health workers, sales people, truckdrivers and other service workers. But most of the fastest-growing, best-paid occupations will be in the technical areas--computer programmers and technicians, electrical and aeronautical engineers. Automation will also require many service and clerical workers to have technical training and aptitude. Some experts predict that by the end of the century, office and factory automation will have replaced or significantly altered almost half the jobs in the economy.
This enormous upheaval in the workplace will take place during a period in which the labor force will change hardly at all. The baby boom is behind us, and the rate at which women enter the labor force is also likely to slow. In fact, the great bulk of people who will be in the labor force in the year 2000 are already in it. Many more workers now have college degrees than ever before-- more than the labor market requires--but all too few have technical training.
One remedy for this imbalance would be to retrain large numbers of workers. Employers already do a good deal of training, but a recent study by Harvard economist James Medoff suggests that they don't do nearly enough. Instead, they prefer to bid away workers from other firms--thus driving up wages--or settle for workers who don't really meet their requirements--thus cutting productivity. Firms may also decide to replace workers with automated equipment even if the swap is not really efficient--especially because of the strong bias toward automation now built into the tax code.
Easing the transition to the automated workplace will require many kinds of intervention--upgrading technical training in the schools, retraining workers and involving them in the conversion process, redesigning jobs to ease the boredom of tending to automatons and inventing new ways to let people mix work, leisure and continuing education. It may also require a more fundamental reconsideration of how the society values contributions to economic well-being and distributes access to the job market. If we don't start thinking about these things now, we may find ourselves in the not so distant future with large numbers of people either waiting in welfare lines or pushing brooms with the Reeks and Wrecks.