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Posts Tagged ‘work’

The End of Good Work?

In 1879 farm laborers in Maryland destroyed harvesting machinery and left the farm owner a note:

“You will please stop your other machines or next will be your life. . . . We do not get work enough . . . we have to go into det.” In 1938 Congress examined how mechanization was displacing tens of thousands of farm workers and families. And in 1962 President Kennedy declared that machines replacing men posed the major domestic challenge of the decade.

Repeatedly, new technologies have displaced and “de-skilled” specific kinds of work. Overall, though, American workers have gone on to have better jobs in each case. A new book by economist Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, nonetheless argues that this time the end of good work is really coming. …. See the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.

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Jobs Go and Come

A recent article in the New York Times described new computer software that in an instant sifts through thousands of legal documents looking a few litigable items; they replace hundreds of hours of lawyers reading the documents. This is not the start of a joke about how many lawyers you need to . . .  But it does raise the question of how many lawyers you need. Economist-columnist Paul Krugman used the story to explain that computerization threatens to replace many white-collar jobs that are now held by college graduates. (And if you don’t need college graduates, do you need college professors? Uh-oh.)

1939 (F.S.A., Libr. of Congress)

It did not help settle anxieties that the story appeared shortly after IBM’s Watson computer beat two super-humans at Jeopardy. And now there  are reports of software programs winning big pots on internet poker. The specter of automation unemploying us all may have finally arrived.

For decades, ages before personal computers, learned observers wrote about how machines were going to replace humans – for better or for ill. Some worried that the masses of dispossessed workers would form a revolutionary mob; others suggested introducing people to uplifting hobbies since we would have so much more leisure time on our hands. But the mass job shrinkage that these observers all expected did not come. Has it finally come?

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The Big Change

What’s the biggest change in the American way of life in the last 50-60 years? There are a lot of candidates: the coming of new technologies, especially the computer and internet; the end of the post-war boom and the start of economic stagnation for average Americans; much more liberal and open sexual mores; the dismantling of the racial caste system capped by the election of a black president; and so on. These were all important, but my candidate for the Big Change Award is this: Mom goes to work.

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To be sure, mothers always worked – at home for their families, doing housework and childcare. And many mothers also worked at home for pay – farm women churning butter or gathering eggs for sale; poor urban women indoors spinning, weaving, and sewing, paid by the piece. Some mothers, particularly African and Irish American mothers, worked away from home, usually as servants and maids. Still, in the early 20th century, relatively few American mothers with children at home, rarely those with young children, went out to work. Then everything changed. And then maybe the change stopped.

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