12 07 2009

In the United States steel industry between 1982 and the year 2002 production rose from 77 million tons a year to 120 million tons. At the same time the number of workers employed in the industry went from 289,000 down to 74,000.

This is not an isolated occurrence. Similar statistics can be found in most industries in all industrialised countries. The reason is not complicated – better machines and greater efficiency means an increasing ability to produce more with less labour.

Surely this is a good thing. The only question is what do we do with it. How do we best realise the great gift our technology is offering us. For example, if the  statistics for steel were more or less representational of productivity increases in all industries, that would mean we could sustain 1982 living standards on a 10 hour work week. I know it’s not as simple as that: there are many post 1982 developments that we would not want to do without and some industries have not had the productivity increases that steel production has (though some have had more). I’m just using this example to indicate the scale of what is happening.

We are not even coming close to taking full advantage of the possibilities that technology opens up. While our great productivity has resulted in large increases in living standards, it has also helped to cause two of our biggest problems. On the one hand we generate unemployment, turning the machine freed workers into the out of work. On the other hand we desperately start producing more and more stuff to create work for the unemployed to do. We have created the twin problem of unemployment and a global and personal smothering in excess stuff, when we could just be having more and more free time.

And please, not free time to drink more beer and watch more television. But free time to give our lives more meaning and transform the world.

PS. I am intending to set up a new page on this blog listing various statistics on productivity growth




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