Work a day World….which will come

Another article about the end of work as we know it and I have to agree that this is the ‘feeling’ i get when looking and listening to the world at large. My jobs over the years have taken me to many companies, many new, some middle aged, a fair number ‘old line industrial.’ And the way I see it now is that we’ve been overlooking profound changes that were happening without causing much of direct stir while looking in the wrong direction and perhaps (probably) pursuing the wrong ‘solutions’ to what may not be real problems.

The story I would tell is this, that the heyday of the giant integrated conglomerate as a generic solution in the technology arena was probably sometime around the middle of the twentieth century. Not that anyone realized it or noted it, but after that smaller companies were often able to outmaneuver the big guys and started carving away chunks, not directly but by making managers/owners make decisions that marginalized pieces of their business. These middle sized companies started small and sometimes grew big and became conglomerates but on average the company size got smaller and more focused.

Many of the companies I visit have huge factories built in the heyday of mass production. Today these factories instead of producing just one product, produce several, or dozens and the people who service the machines are a fraction of the ‘old’ work force, or much of the facility stands vacant while the still sell just as much in raw value as they did when they had hundreds if not thousands of workers. Many stay in these old factories, because they’re essentially free and/or tearing it down would open them up for problems with the EPA re ‘Brown Field Remediation’ etc.

What happened to all those workers? We’ve heard about the hollowing out of our manufacturing for a long time but the pain was ‘mostly’ pretty low level, why? Because for the first forty years most of the the effects were hidden. Those smaller, mid sized companies were usually, less automated and less efficient but less expensive in terms of human driven overheads (generally younger staff, lower wages, small efficient shops, small effective teams, managerially efficient), and they sopped up, the workers no longer needed by the ‘mainline’ shops.

So why the agony now? I think that the internet bubble then the financial bubble hid the tailing off of the gentle transition, or maybe it kept more of the old line industries / jobs in play and then dropped them on the floor in one steaming pile. And suddenly the staid old like companies appear to have vanished, and the jobs appear to have vanished, but they had mostly vanished a decade and more ago, the rest was financial illusion.

If there had been no 911 and a need to hide the cost of the wars it sparked and a Ranch and Cancun Vacation (instead of bread and circuses) program put on to distract our attention, we would probably have seen the pain earlier and I think less severely. Now we probably are going to undergo a painful decade of recession, maybe more until we understand that the world has changed and work and the economy have to evolve.

How that evolution is going to happen is a blank to me. But what I see as happening over the next several decades is an ongoing evolution of work to highly automated mass production of basic needs, and the creation of more and more boutique, even artisanal companies often supported by constantly shifting teams of people who are engaged for short run needs.

And perhaps the gov’t and many folks who are still looking at the past to guide the future, will stop trying to save industrial age health and retirement systems that are unsustainable in the long run, and look to a much more personally focused system one that is portable across the country and across the globe if we have any sense.

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