John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


On the Changing Nature of Work

Posted on November 30, 2009

On the Changing Nature of Work

My wife and I are addicted to the television show Mad Men, the American Movie Classics serial that chronicles the lives of Madison Avenue Advertising Agency executives during the Kennedy Administration.

Change is in the air. That is the subtext of the show, as the advertising gurus try to capture the imagination of an increasingly restless public.  The admen often drink before lunch, as they ponder the future, chase clients during the afternoon, and chase their secretaries as happy hour approaches.   The power relationships between young and old, black and white, man and woman, straight and gay, all play out in the background as these Mad Men try to find the next great slogan.

I was thinking about Mad Men as I read Paul Krugman’s New York Times column this morning.  In another rant, Krugman, the most dangerous economist on the planet, demands that the Obama Administration create millions of make-work jobs.  He says, “It’s time for at least a small-scale version of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, one that would offer relatively low-paying (but much better than nothing) public-service employment.”

Krugman’s idea, is, well, stupid.  Most Americans aren’t going to take low-paying make-work jobs, especially if they can get along with unemployment or welfare or any other assorted benefits.  And the fact of the matter is that if they wanted those kinds of jobs, they could get them now.

And that gets me to the real purpose of today’s theory.  If you watch Mad Men carefully, you will see that most of the jobs from that era aren’t necessary today.  You don’t need someone to do short hand or typing, because most people (if they are under the age of 60), do their own typing now.  You don’t need the telephone operators, like they have at the firm, because everyone has their own cell phone.  You don’t need somebody to operate the elevator, because, well, most people can push their own buttons.

Society has progressed in such a way, that many of the lower-paying but once critical jobs, are now gone.  One of the most under-reported but important aspects of the information age is the impact on jobs.  You don’t need people to do many of the tasks that are now done by one person.  Higher productivity is one product of the information age.  But so is the need for fewer people to do those jobs.

That, of course, has always been the case.  In the last two hundred years, the industrial age and then the information age, has had one express goal.  Make people obsolete.  Much talk has been made about how jobs have gone to China, but actually, most manufacturing jobs have been eliminated through technology.  Sure, some companies have moved their productions overseas (to Mexico or China or India), but studies have shown that a far higher percentage have been eliminated either through mechanization advances or information technology advances.

Interestingly, one sector that hasn’t seen a dramatic reduction in size is government.  Government, at the local, state and federal level, has continued to increase in size and cost, despite the information age.  And, you can argue, that with that increased size has come increased inefficiency.  After all, the approval ratings for government at any level is at an all time low.

Krugman, and other liberals, think that the best way to get people working again is to get the government to hire more of them.  Of course, that is exactly wrong.  The government needs to hire a lot less people, cost a lot less to the taxpayer, and become more accountable to the voters.

The President has a so-called jobs summit where he will bring in all kinds of experts to talk about he is going to create jobs for those who don’t have jobs.  It is unlikely that he will talk about how his agenda has actually hurt job creation or how bigger government actually hurts economic growth.

And it is unlikely that he will talk about the changing nature of work in the country.  What has the information age done to job creation in the 21st Century?  What jobs are no longer necessary (most auto manufacturing jobs, typist)?  What jobs are now more necessary (computer repairmen, cyber security experts)?

What do most people do now that we don’t need many people to do the things we used to have them do?  We don’t need as many people to produce food for us, for example.  We don’t need as many people to make cars.  We don’t need as many people to do run printing presses (why would you if you get all your news from the Internet).

Productivity makes more people obsolete.  So what do the people do then?

My answer would be that they should pursue their dreams.  Create a small business.  Open a shop or a pub or clothing store.  Start a blog.  Write a book.  Play golf (Tiger Woods made a billion dollars, thanks to golf, last year).  Play poker (the guy who won the World Series of Poker earlier this month won more than $5 million dollars).

None of these things are particularly useful when it comes to key components of any economy.  Neither golf nor poker is going to make America more competitive with the Chinese in the next century.  But they provide entertainment value to a country that needs entertainment, and that should not be discounted.

The fact of the matter is that the workplace is changing.  It is changing in a positive direction.  The food revolution, the manufacturing revolution, the information revolution have all made the essentials of living cheaper to produce and easier to access for most Americans.  That gives more Americans the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

I doubt that this will be a subject of the Obama jobs forum, but it is a fact of life that we should all be thinking of as we ponder the future.

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