By Arnold Kling
Consider the following hypotheses.
1. The Great Depression and World War II ended the last vestiges of the Jeffersonian agricultural economy in America. The yeoman farmer disappears.
2. The current recession is accelerating a transition away from the industrial era in which efficiency requires ever-increasing scale along with tight worker discipline. The robotic human worker disappears.
For more on these notions, read on.The yeoman farmer is a small-scale farmer. Once we have tractors and other machinery to work the land, and once we have trucks and roads for shipping farm produce long distances, the case for the small-scale farm is weakened. Sharecropping and homesteading are no longer economical. By the 1930’s, millions of agricultural workers had become superfluous. During the second world war, they acquired some skills, contacts, and mobility that ultimately facilitated a reconfiguration of employment, toward sales and other white-collar work.
The industrial society is based on scale and worker discipline. You build large factories, and you want workers to adhere to a tight schedule, as dictated by the production line. Schooling is organized to instill the discipline that allows large groups of workers to gather in the same place and the same time to produce efficiently.
This industrial model became adapted to other areas. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae turned mortgage lending into a centralized, standardized, routinized process.
The industrial model of work is that employees work in close proximity at the same time. What we observe with the Internet is something quite different. Individuals can time-shift work and co-ordinate from disparate locations.
When I had my Internet business, Homefair, I was located in Silver Spring, Maryland and my main business partners were in Scottsdale. Arizona. I time-shifted my work. I worked many hours, including nights, weekends, and one particularly traumatic anniversary evening. On the other hand, I could take two afternoons during the week to coach my daughter’s softball team.
That was back in the 1990’s. Today, we see much more of that. People with smart phones are carrying the office wherever they go, but that means that they do not have to be at the physical office as much.
We are seeing fewer jobs where there is the external discipline of the time clock and the assembly line. The human robot that was once needed to lift and pound in a factory continues to be replaced by non-human robots.
Instead, we are seeing more jobs where internal discipline is required. I suspect that this explains some of the wage differential that shows up for college graduates. Graduating high school shows that you can submit to external discipline. Graduating college shows that you can operate under internal discipline.
In the 1920’s, the boom (or bubble) in stocks helped raise perceived wealth. This maintained demand for agricultural products, which allowed some Jeffersonian agriculture to persist longer than it would have otherwise. The 1930’s forced a rapid transition.
Similarly, the housing boom earlier in this decade helped to raise perceived wealth and maintained demand in many sectors. This allowed many nine-to-five jobs modeled on the industrial form of organization to persist longer than they would have otherwise. The crash forced a rapid transition.
The transitions are unavoidable. The economy that emerges ten years from now will have very different patterns of leisure and work. Many work will be time-shifted and location-independent, in striking contrast to the industrial model.