The Line of the Idle

July 8, 2018

by Steve Stofka

It used to be easy for a horse to get a job. This week I’ll look at the workers who have been idled by a century of automation. As a counterpoint to the daily rhythms of being busy, a casual idleness helps us recharge our batteries. In an America whose moral foundations are the Protestant work ethic, a constant idleness taints a person’s character. Those who have retired after a lifetime of work are expected to stay active. Leisure time is a resource not be squandered.

The phrase “pull your weight” meant to act like a horse and contribute to the team effort. From the Revolutionary War for Independence to World War 1, horses fought bravely and earned a place of respect in American history. Many a statue portrays a general atop his brave steed. Horses helped turn America into the bread basket of the world. Then the gas engines came after their jobs. Motors took over the jobs of pulling horse drawn carriages, plows and work wagons. Thousands of horses joined the line of the idle.

Then the engines came for the jobs of the agricultural workers. In the first half of the 20th century, farm employment fell from 40% of the labor force to 20% in 1950, and is 2% today.

Then the robots came for the jobs of manufacturing workers. A 1987 BLS report found that “relatively few employees have been laid off because of technological change.” Thirty years later, the National Council on Compensation (NCCI) summarized data from several sources. “In 2016 the United States produced almost 72% more goods than in 1990, but with only about 70% of the workers.” This two-part report is a bit lengthy but a quick glance at the graphs on the first page tell the story of the decline in agricultural and manufacturing jobs. (Part 1 and Part 2) . As a percent of the labor force, agricultural jobs peaked in the late 1800s. Manufacturing employment peaked just after World War 2.

Robots help assemble the horseless carriages in the car factories. In businesses across the land, the robots now weld and lift, pick and sort, box and ship – jobs that humans had a monopoly on. The robots are now learning how to drive and to think. Almost 40% of adults, and 20% of adults in the prime of their lives now sit idle, joining the horses in pasture.

Electric motors, long chained by a cord to a wall, have broken free and are now taking the jobs of gas engines. Robots built by workers in other countries compete for the jobs of American-built robots. Now the machines are making other machines obsolete.

Forged by the Protestant work ethic, the retired generation of Boomers pursue their leisure in earnest. RV sales are at record levels and last year’s visits to national parks almost matched the record numbers of 2016. Each year there are more visits than there are people in the country (Nat’l Park Service link). This growth in recreation occurs at a time when continuing drought in the western states has put extraordinary pressure on plants and wildlife. Summer in the west is now the season of fire.

In 1900, people welcomed their idleness as a byproduct and hallmark of progress and prosperity. The idleness of prosperity looks very different from the idleness of poverty visible in many troubled countries around the world, including parts of America. Which line is longer and which line are we on?

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