Our Free Enterprise economic system requires that in order for a person to participate in the fruits of the economy they must be gainfully employed. This system has served us well, leading to incredible invention, innovation, and a bounty of goods and services available to us. But what if there are people capable, willing, and anxious to be gainfully employed, but there are not enough jobs for all of the applicants? Are those people then doomed to be left on the sidelines, outcasts destined to poverty?
This is not a new situation. We have had dramatic "Sea Change" transformations in labor markets through history. A hundred and fifty years ago, nearly 80% of working Americans made their living working on farms desperately trying to produce enough to keep us all fed and clothed. Over the years, improvements in seeds, fertilizers, techniques, and mechanization have eliminated the need for almost all of the farmers. Today, less than 3% of us produce more farm crops than we know what to do with.
So what happened to the 77% of us that were out of a job as a farmer? Were we left as unemployed waifs? No, we went to work in factories, producing the cornucopia of goods that define modern life. We went to work building roads, houses, and commercial buildings.
At that time, most women with the typical family of six or eight children, hauling water from the well, wood for the stove and the furnace, and scrubbing clothes on a washboard, had all they could handle running a household. But by the middle of the 20th century, with declining family sizes, hot and cold running water, refrigerators, washers, dryers, etc., running a household ceased to be a job for millions of women, and they joined the labor force.
So did that leave millions of people without a job? No. We stopped working 6 days a week, 10 hours a day, 60 hours a week at our jobs. We changed to a standard work week of 40 hours. We made that transformation a matter of law, requiring employers to pay "time and a half" for any hours beyond 40 a week. This, of course, has been a good thing! It has given us time to enjoy with our families and friends, and to pursue hobbies, sports, and other interests.
By the latter part of the century, a combination of phenomenal developments in technology, increased productivity, and importing more of our factory goods from countries with a lower wage scale, caused us to drop from a peak of more than 40 % of us working in factories until today only about 13% of us do so. The U.S. is still far and away the largest manufacturing country in the world -- it just doesn't require very many people to accomplish it.
There have been many other shifts in the requirement for labor. What happened to the thousands of boys pumping gas, now that we pump it ourselves? Pin boys at the bowling alley, or caddies at the golf course? There were millions of people employed repairing things. Now, like the lonely Maytag repairman, there are less and less of them needed since most appliances, electronics, shoes, etc. are disposable; and other items like automobiles need less and less maintenance. Many occupations that employed hundreds of thousands of people have been transformed. There are no stenographers, communications are all via e-mail and are typed directly by the people communicating. When retail consisted of small shops on Main Street, it required a great many people to provide service to the customers. As the shops were replaced by the Big Box stores, the number of people needed in retailing dropped dramatically. And now we are replacing more and more of all stores with On-Line shopping, where a few robotic stock picking machines in a national warehouse can fulfill thousands of orders an hour.
I subscribe to a newspaper and news magazines, but my kids don't. All of the jobs associated with reporting, writing, printing, and distributing newspapers and news magazines will disappear. Paper books are being replaced by e-books at an alarming rate, another transformational technology, and major book store chains are already closing. My kids don't have land line telephones, another industry that will go by the way. They don't have a closet full of suits and ties and dresses, and clothes that need to go to the cleaners. Physical delivery systems for music or movies will all soon join that pile of old vinyl records in the corner of the antique store. The US Post Office is now in the business of delivering catalogs and flyers, and they can't cover their costs doing it. They still deliver some bills and statements, but the bills are paid on line, and it's only a matter of time before mailing paper bills and statements is relegated to history, and the Post Office along with it.
As for construction, we have constructed more houses and commercial buildings than we have people to occupy them.
We have been working since the dawn of the Industrial revolution to create more goods and services with less and less labor. We have succeeded!
And, It is clear that part of the solution to the problem of having a massive number of retired people to be supported by a shrinking number of working people, is that we will all be working additional years before retirement, adding millions of more people to the labor force.
We have arrived at another of those "Sea Change" transformations, where the future is simply not going to look like the past. We are desperately trying to create jobs by stimulating the economy with massive Government deficit spending (and massive debt) in the hope that we can regain full employment if only the economy grows faster. Perhaps then, everyone will have a job.
They won't !
The continual "stimulus" may create another boom, to be followed by another bust, but it will not change the fact that we simply do not have a need for the amount of labor available. We will never again need to have 80% of us working on farms. We will never again need to have 40% of us working in factories. We simply have more work hours available than there is any need for.
We already have more "stuff" in our lives than we know what to do with. Yes, we can have six different kinds of sneakers in our closet for our six different activities. We can make jobs for people cutting our finger and toe nails, mowing our lawns, and supervising our workout at the gym. But we still can't create enough work to gainfully employ everyone for all the work hours that are available. When we talk about "doing our part for the economy" we talk about consuming more, not about producing more.
It is time to wake up, recognize reality, and talk about how we can reorganize our society so that everyone can be employed, by everyone working less. That is not a bad thing - it is a good thing! Isn't that what we have been working for and hoping for? Haven't we dreamed of more time to do the things we really want to do. Time for family and friends. Time to pursue the activities that we enjoy.
There might be a number of ways to go about this, but the quickest way to achieve it is the same way we have come to accept a 40 hour work week as "standard" with "time and a half" pay for hours worked beyond that. Simply legislate a standard 44 week work year, with "time and a half" for additional time worked, and 8 weeks paid vacation for each employee. And companies will need to hire substantially more employees to fill their staffing requirements. If all companies in an industry are all subject to the same rules, they will simply raise their prices to cover their additional costs, the same as they do now when the costs of their raw materials rise, or other costs increase. They will still be in the same competitive position. And for us collectively as a nation, the additional cost of goods will be offset by not having the cost of a society where a substantial portion of us are not and can not be gainfully employed, and need to be supported by society.
More on this topic and other thought provoking topics in the highly acclaimed poignant witty book "Running Amok - Our Grandchildren will Curse Us" by Dave Rosenak. Check out the web site http://www.RunningAmokTheBook.com/ Whether you think the book will start a revolution, or whether you think the author should stick all of his stinking opinions back where the sun don't shine, you won't be bored