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In praise of honest work

If we believed in the honour of work, employment would take care of itself.
Karl D. Stephan | 25 September 2013
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draughtsmen

The ways that people make a living today are very different from what they were a generation ago. In 1970, Detroit was still a bustling manufacturing metropolis, thousands of women earned a decent living as telephone operators, and many newspapers provided employment to linotype operators who spent their days at the keyboard of a clunky pile of machinery that moulded molten type metal into sticks.  

Needless to say, you will have problems finding a manufacturing job in Detroit these days, and the other jobs are history too. Furthermore, engineers played an essential role in these changes, and leading the charge are those engineers who made computers and information technology the chief engine of creative destruction over the last few decades. 

And we are by no means done, according to a report by some Oxford researchers that was mentioned in the online magazine Salon recently. Carl B. Frey and Michael A. Osborne studied the US employment picture and used sophisticated (and undoubtedly computerized) data-grinding methods to discover that almost half of current US jobs could eventually vanish as they are taken over by "computerisation".

Some parts of this forecast are easy to believe. If experiments by Google and others succeed in replacing human car and truck drivers with robot drivers, long-distance truckers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and anybody else who gets paid to drive something somewhere will have to find something else to do. Among the ranks of engineers themselves, this sort of thing has been going on for decades too. If you look at old photographs of the offices of large engineering firms in the 1970s, one of the most typical images is that of a huge open room filled with row after row of drawing boards, each one with its white-shirted male engineer.

The output of a roomful of engineers at drawing boards can be matched today by one modern engineer armed with CAD (computer-aided design) software. The processes are so different that they are not directly comparable, but obviously, today's engineers have very different skills than the engineers of 1970, many of whom were little more than glorified draftsmen. But is all this real cause for concern? Or are we looking at the problem from too narrow an angle?

What so often goes completely unmentioned in discussions of technological unemployment, is the question of anthropology: what is your model of the human being? I think the model that most secular economists and researchers use is something like this. All life is basically economic in character, and the ultimate good in this life is a smoothly functioning economy, wherein everyone capable of contributing to it works to the best of their ability and receives in turn the material benefits of their work. That is a nice picture as far as it goes, but as a philosophy of life it's somewhat lacking.

For a completely different take on technological unemployment, you should read one of a number of works that were popular in the 1930s. Even in the teeth of the Great Depression, writers such as C. C. Furnas in The Next Hundred Years went into optimistic technophilic raptures about how the increasing efficiency and productivity brought about by technological advances would let most people earn all the money they needed by working only one or two hours a day, leaving the rest of the time for leisure pursuits such as art appreciation and charitable work. We have certainly gone beyond Mr. Furnas's wildest dreams of increased productivity. So what went wrong with his vision?

I'm not entirely sure, but one factor seems to be the social consensus of what kinds of work and lives are to be desired, and what kinds are to be disparaged. A short list of the occupations that are admired and envied in the US today might start out like this: movie stars, rock stars, the wealthy (regardless of how they made their money), sports figures, politicians (a few, anyway) . . . and it's going to be a short list because for the most part, we don't have true heroes anymore, just people who are famous for a bit and then fall victim to that favourite journalistic enterprise, The Mighty Brought Low. 

An even more important reason for the problem that most people seem dissatisfied with their occupational lot in life is that respect for ordinary, non-intellectual, perennial jobs that are nonetheless useful to society has largely vanished from the scene. This disrespect can do tremendous psychological damage to those who hold such jobs, which in any economy is going to be the majority of workers. Take janitors, for instance. Janitorial work is the classic job today that "don't get no respect," in Rodney Daingerfield's phrase. But it was not always thus.

My first job, outside of being paid by family friends, was sweeping the floor in a sign plant in Fort Worth, Texas. It took me just about all day to work my way around the band saws, the bending brakes, and the vacuum moulding machine. There was no air conditioning, no breaks except for lunch, and by the time five o'clock rolled around I was ready to go home and flop—no heavy reading for this boy that summer. But I was grateful for the work and the pay, and did it as well as I could. 

An amazing thing happened my last day on the job. They gave me a going-away party, complete with a little cake. I can still see their faces: the grizzled old shop foreman who showed me the ropes my first day on the job, the skinny bandsaw operator with slicked-back black hair who always talked about how he'd rather be fishing, the red-headed cowboy who I saw one day taking liberties with the secretary (it bothered me until I found out they were married)—they thought enough of my humble sweeping up after them to honour me and wish me well in the future. 

They did this, not because I had proved to be in the 99th percentile of floor sweepers nationwide, but because I had done a simple job with a reasonable amount of dedication. They saw even such humble work as worthy of honour, and decided to honour me because I had done it well. 

If that deep respect for those who do any kind of honest work, technological or otherwise, were embedded in the ethos and psyche of this nation, the employment picture would largely take care of itself. But those in charge of the economy would first have to believe in the honour of work, and then put their money where their hearts are. And by and large, neither the money nor the hearts are in the right place today.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.

Copyright © Karl D. Stephan . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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