People Thought the Industrial Revolution Was Servile Too
Published on: November 16, 2013
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  • Anthony

    To some extent all jobs are demeaning, nothing can be done about that.

    This article shows why young people need marketable skills training, i.e., training that prepares people to become doctors, engineers, accountants, mechanics, plumbers and etc. Liberal arts and law degrees are definitely do not belong in this group.

    These are all service jobs, but because they involve a specialized skill set that is in demand, they tend to get better pay and more respect. Young people who are too poor to get this kind of training, or who were brought up in families were education was not valued, should consider enlisting the military. The US armed forces will train you for many jobs, including ones that don’t automatically come to mind when you think of the military. A friend of mine learned to be a chef in the army, and now he works at a gourmet restaurant.

    • Anthony

      Anthony, One observation: “all jobs are not demeaning to any extent.” Job holders (some) of any age learn to devise strategies by which “a job” ties into a fundamental truth about living process despite circumstances (I don’t think WRM meant to imply drudgery sans value nor money over learning – it is possible to value learning over money).

    • Corlyss

      Agreed. Work for pay used to be called wage slavery by, I’m guessing, trust fund babies in Harvard and Yale. It’s trading skills for money. What’s so horrible about that? Empires have been built on the concept.

  • JDogg Snook

    Walter- your essay ended a couple paragraphs too soon. You talk about shifting gov’t policy and making it easier for people to move beyond collapsing institutions, but then nothing.

    It seems to me — if these sorts of jobs will truly grow in the future and become one facet of the information-age economy, then the gov’t should make these workers 1099’s instead of the household employees they are today. This will make is less likely that families will pay them under the table (avoiding taxes), as families will no longer have to get tax id’s and deal with the administrative overhead of payroll taxes, workers comp taxes, etc.

  • Corlyss

    “we could be doomed to a future of kowtowing to the rich”

    You mean not like we do now?

    Look at how fast the federal government turned to preserve Hank Paulsen’s buddies in Wall Street firms that should have gone belly up. Look at how a couple of dot.com billionaires turned Colorado blue. Look at how wealthy sports team owners screw concessions from desperate cities to keep sports teams in their home towns. Everyone in the US aspires to become rich enough to have entire segments of society bow to their whims. The NYT types are just terrified that more of us means “there goes the neighborhood . . . “

  • Dan King
  • wigwag

    I bet that the nanny in question makes a higher salary and enjoys far more luxurious fringe benefits than the majority of the critics bemoaning her servility.

    As for the idea that the wealthy take advantage of their poor put upon servants let me make a couple of recommendations; go to Netflix and rent Mozart’s ale Nozze di Figaro or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Mozart’s opera was composed 228 years ago and Rossini’s was composed 196 years ago. Watching these timeless classics makes you realize that the rich boss is not always the boss.

    If opera is not your cup of tea, go to the library and take out a couple of books from P.G. Wodhouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series. More often than not, the boss is simply not the boss.

    By the way, there have always been rich people and there always will be. Those knuckleheads who are offended by the story Professor Mead cites would be well advised to learn to live with it.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Any fan of Wodhouse, is someone that I can admire!

  • Boritz

    We need to make it easier for millions of people to move beyond the collapsing institutions and careers of the old world, and to create the jobs and the businesses of a new and more humane economic order. -VM
    “We need to make it easier…?” Ask first how a course of action serves to consolidate power in Washington in order to assess the likelihood of it happening in this political universe.

  • Anthony

    Sometimes we are trapped by the limitations of our consciousness (again, as WigWag adumbrates); and given that essay implies a new economic model rising, surmounting said limitations as well as reality compels new thoughts, configurations, probabilities, etc.

    Yet, the model bears fruit going forward for the young (millennials and others). That is, they have the longer long-term life horizon and ought to be most open to the information, knowledge, opportunities, and changes encoded in new model (expansion of skill base requires trial and error). Furthermore, this lurch towards a new economic model (new economy) implied in essay is not reviled because it connotes servility but because it brings to mind (for some) atavism; a throwback to the future dressed up in modern definitions despite inflationary dollar wages/compensation.

    Nevertheless, the new model WRM for all intents and purposes is with us and giving it context/structure, while living through it, is hard – the system of production (modern capitalism) has wrought transforming social patterns and has made some models outmoded but there are no short cuts…

  • USNK2

    “…It is foolish and naive to think otherwise….”
    No, Mr. Mead it is not. Manufacturing matters.
    There is no ‘conventional wisdom’ excuse on the list that bears close scrutiny.
    Unit labor costs are very high in Germany, yet they still have an economy built around manufacturing of high value added products that sell very well.
    When I had to buy a new stove in 2006, I had to buy a Bosch because that German company manufactures in the USA for the USA market because unit labor costs are cheaper than in Germany.
    No one who has never worked in manufacturing should pontificate about the promise of a post-industrial service economy.
    Have been hearing that promise for more than thirty years from snobs with MBAs who disdain the idea of walking into a factory.

    • Bob

      Please! Neither Mead nor any other thinking person claims manufacturing is going away. But a manufacturing sector populated with hundreds of thousands let alone millions of un- and semi-skilled workers toiling away at repetitive jobs making middle class money is unimaginable in any plausible economic scenario now and in the future. It is more cost-effective to hire robots than people for many manufacturing tasks, which means manufacturing employees must have better and more varied skills. And there will be fewer of them.

      The need for new and different really applies to almost everyone in the post-post-WWII global economy. Mead has written consistently and persuasively of the need for people to find new skills, and he has done so here as well. It’s just that some of the new skills needed don’t fit neatly into the “life time employment / union wages / retirement pension” mold of the past.

      Personal service is not necessarily servile work especially if you are well paid to do it.

    • Anthony

      You make a good point, but I’m not sure manufacturing can sustain the middle class going forward. Robots are going to manufacture most of things we buy. This isn’t just a problem for America. China is trying to recreate 1950s America around mass employment in manufacturing. The problem is that, as factories get automated, there is less of a need to move factories to China in the first place.

  • lukelea

    “There will be more and less expensive personal chefs, for example, . .”

    Like the ones at McDonald’s? Let them eat fries!

    It’s all about the growing inequality between capital and labor, which is the way they saw things back in the 19th century two. As a result they instituted the eight-hour day, ended child labor, restricted immigration, and supported protective tariffs on American industry. The results weren’t bad.

    The big difference is that this time labor isn’t organized. And it isn’t nearly as clear-eyed as it used to be. We’re getting dumber it would seem.

    • There is probably no era of American history that is more misunderstood and wrongly maligned than the period between the Civil War and WWI.

    • Loader2000

      I think some of the things you mention contributed to higher wages. Protective tariffs certainly didn’t. When one country raises protective tariffs, they all do. The consequence is that trade grinds to a halt and goods and services suddenly become more expensive everywhere. This is what happened during the Great Depression as a result of tariffs and both conservative and liberal economists almost universally hail the world wide tariffs that appeared during the Great Depression as an economic disaster that made everything worse.

      Very limited tariffs might be okay when we know a particular country is breaking the rules by subsidizing one of their industries. However, large numbers of tariffs applied to many industries only seem like a good idea if one doesn’t consider history.

  • lukelea

    WRM writes: “It is not the summit of human social organization to create an economy where millions of people spend their working lifetime making mechanical motions that a robot could replace. And serving people is not necessarily servile or demeaning. Jobs that involve varied tasks and using the worker’s talent and social skills to enhance and enrich other lives are not bad lives.”

    True. But there is more than one way to approach the problem: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B48WcEDU3CN9MmVhSmZRT3hqUmc/edit?usp=sharing

    The trouble with your approach is that it only speaks to the talented few.

  • Anthony

    WRM, somewhat related the Chicago’s Sunday Tribune (editorial section, p. 22) right under mast four columns long quotes your American Interest piece Jun. 2013: “Sixty years ago, it was hard to find people who doubted that each generation would be larger than the last…governments and employers built optimistic growth projections….” T

  • Jim__L

    Nannies are problematic from an egalitarian point of view because of the way their pay is tied to a single household’s. Unless the nanny sets up a daycare-like arrangement where they take care of more than one household’s children, their income is always going to be less than that household’s. Nannies are, historically, a luxury for the upper class.

    Nowadays you’re seeing more upper-middle- and even middle-class two-income households turning to nannies for child care. But, unless the lower-paid parent is entirely unsuited to rearing children of a particular age (which may start to happen more often, if households arise where women significantly out-earn men) nannies are inevitably going to earn less than the lower-earning parent. The economic choice of “stay home with the kids or hire a nanny” would skew towards staying at home… especially considering the tax and other transaction costs that come into play.

    So, the single-household nanny’s salary is capped at something below average.

    The trick here for each service professional is to figure out how to set up a “practice” system — a provider / client system — that allows one service provider to charge a moderate amount of money from a large number of different clients. Computers will probably help with the mechanics here, reducing service delivery costs to the point that providing a services to multiple clients is effective.

    If more schools — high schools, even — taught this sort of small-business entrepreneurialism, America would be very well served.

  • free_agent

    In the US, where factory wages were never horrible (because the family farm system didn’t collapse very fast), working in a factory was still called “wage slavery” because some other man told you what to do, and when and how to do it. So part of the issue is a matter of values, which it takes a generation or two to get straightened out.

    In regard to the nanny who cooks quinoa, what’s really happening is that she’s becoming a part-time *cook*, and cooks of any quality have always done well in the job market. Even in Victorian times (which weren’t good for servants), they said that “cats and cooks left without saying goodbye”, that is, a cook could get another job without getting a reference from her current employer.

    But most of these sophisticated service jobs, I suspect, will not be in service to a single employer, but to a herd of regulars, somewhat like a hairdresser or a cleaning service. I am reminded of the meals service that a married couple of two economists hired. It delivers a week of pre-made meals each week, done to their specifications. Skilled and personalized service, but by no means subservient to a single boss.

  • Great post. Exactly the kind of smart conservative thinking America needs. This is when this blog is best. Please, more of this, and less partisan stuff on Obama or ACA.

  • David Foster

    The common assertion that “service industry jobs” are inherently more creative than manufacturing jobs needs to be challenged. There are a lot of different kinds of jobs in a manufacturing company, as there are in the services sector. Is a private chef really more creative than a toolmaker? Is an interior designer more creative than an industrial engineer? Is a computer programmer in a bank inherently more creative than a computer programmer in a manufacturing company? Indeed, is even the least-skilled assembly-line worker less creative than a checkout clerk at a chain store?

    It was observed many decades ago that some of the most Taylorized, dehumanizing, and unsatisfying jobs in the entire economy were the accounting clerks in large insurance companies. This was before computerization…today, instead of the clerks, we have customer service agents who have equally Taylorized and unsatisfying jobs. Insurance is a service industry.

    Also, manufacturing jobs have high leverage–a relatively small number of people can make cars or appliances for everyone in the United States. This is much less true of, say, personal chefs. It is not possible for everyone in the country to have his own personal chef, and the lack of leverage means it is not possible to have very large numbers of personal chefs and nannies who have high incomes.

  • David Foster

    The common assertion that “service industry jobs” are inherently more creative than manufacturing jobs needs to be challenged. There are a lot of different kinds of jobs in a manufacturing company, as there are in the services sector. Is a private chef really more creative than a toolmaker? Is an interior designer more creative than an industrial engineer? Is a computer programmer in a bank inherently more creative than a computer programmer in a manufacturing company? Indeed, is even the least-skilled assembly-line worker less creative than a checkout clerk at a chain store?

    It was observed many decades ago that some of the most Taylorized, dehumanizing, and unsatisfying jobs in the entire economy were the accounting clerks in large insurance companies. This was before computerization…today, instead of the clerks, we have customer service agents who have equally Taylorized and unsatisfying jobs. Insurance is a service industry.

    Also, manufacturing jobs have high leverage–a relatively small number of people can make cars or appliances for everyone in the United States. This is much less true of, say, personal chefs. It is not possible for everyone in the country to have his own personal chef, and the lack of leverage means it is not possible to have very large numbers of personal chefs and nannies who have high incomes.

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