Technology and Wages LO7517
Mon, 20 May 1996 21:20:41 -0400

In LO7495, Joan Pomo writes, in part:

>In the U.S., at one point over 30% of us were employed in
>agriculture and now it is less than 3% even though we produce
>far more agricultural products than ever.

A little more than a dozen years ago, I had occasion to dig
into the statistics regarding workforce distributions as well as
look at some then current studies. The numbers tell a story
of interest to us all.

In 1875, as Frederick Winslow Taylor was just beginning his
studies of manual work, the majority of the population was
engaged in agricultural work, a full 75 percent. (The move
off the farm and into the factory was just beginning.) About
15% were engaged in what were called "manufactories."

By 1920, the workforce pie could be sliced into three roughly
equal pieces: farm, factory, and white collar/service workers.
That meant two-thirds of the workforce was still engaged in
manual work.

But, by 1980, those percentages had reversed. About 30%
were still engaged in factory work but less than three percent
was engaged in farm work. Fully two-thirds were engaged in
white collar/service work.

I recently saw a comment indicating that less than 15% of the
workforce is engaged in factory work, which fits with the 1980
observation that only about 12% is actually engaged in direct
factory work.

Peter Drucker tumbled to this shift from manual to knowledge
work in the 1950s and began writing about in earnest in the 1960s
and 1970s. His 1969 book, The Age of Discontinuity, is, as far
as I'm concerned, still the best explication of the shift to knowledge
work along with all its many implications.

The decrease in the farm worker population was brought about by
productivity increases that were themselves achieved largely via
chemicals, machinery (mechanization), and improved methods.
All were the products of large-scale research and experimentation.

Frederick Winslow Taylor also carried out long-term, large-scale
research and experimentation. From it emerged what came to be
known as "scientific management" -- the art and science of making
work productive. It seems doubtful that scientific management fueled
the fires of growth in manufacturing, but it seems clear that it stoked
them. And people came swarming into the factories as they were
displaced from the farms.

We do have a bit of a chicken and egg problem here because it is
not clear if people were forced off the farm by increases in productivity
there, or if productivity there was driven by people leaving for the
factory. In any event, the migration took place and the increased
productivity happened.

Where we seem to be at this point is poised on the edge of another
great displacement. Armies of service workers, especially clerical
workers, can be displaced by automation (which is different from
mechanization). Changed management methods, reengineering, and
the like, have the potential to do much more than simply decimate or
take out one in ten managers, it could leave only one in ten standing.

Can the ranks of service workers swell to accommodate future
displacements? Perhaps. Let us at least hope so. But what kind
of world will that be? Looks pretty grim to me.

Fred Nickols
methods could essentially wipe out management.


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