The decline of manual labour?
August 28, 2017 9:01 PM   Subscribe

I like watching factory videos. After watching documentaries like this one, I get the feeling that not as much manual labour has been replaced by automation as pundits like to suggest. Is there a way to quantify my feeling and see if there's anything to it? If there is, what do the numbers say?
posted by clawsoon to Work & Money (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on how broadly you want to look at for perspective, it's important to recognize that a lot of manual labour has already long been automated in ways that we don't even recognize as automation. Holes and trenches are no longer dug manually, we use excavators. Ships are loaded and unloaded using containers with cranes rather than a box at a time by stevedores. Furnaces use natural gas through a pipe, rather than coal shovelled in by workers. Delivery wagons no longer need someone to hold the reins of the horses when they make a stop, and their exhaust is now automatically put into the atmosphere rather than manually being shovelled. The tasks of beating, scrubbing and wringing laundry have been automated. Rather than pulling a saw back and forth manually in logging, it was automated into the chainsaw, but the logger has more recently been automated further.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:21 PM on August 28, 2017 [11 favorites]

One thing I'm seeing in that video is that the people all seem to be doing assembly of various parts. It might be that the closer things get to the finished product the more human involvement there is but at the level of components (such as the wires, heating plates and bodies of the irons) it is just machines churning them out with minimal human involvement.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:49 PM on August 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Low value goods use low value manufacturing. High value goods use high value manufacturing.

There's a good chart on the second page of this paper that shows how manufacturing produces the same amount of GDP with a decreasing share of the workforce over time. Automation is really the only way for this to happen.
posted by GuyZero at 9:52 PM on August 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've had the good fortune to tour factories in a few different countries, and the more expensive it is to hire humans, the more is automated, generally. If a machine can do a task, a factory in northern Europe has a machine doing it already; a factory in southeast Asia doesn't. The issue though is that once the robot has been invented for the high end labor market, it's only a matter of time before lower end labor markets can afford and deploy them.
posted by potrzebie at 12:20 AM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I couldn't find it last night quickly, but here's a link to an old comment of mine, quoting candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, describing what we would now think of as the mechanization of coal mining as "automation".

I was also reminded that there's been a lot of automation in the service sector as well; from elevator operators to telephone operators and typists to restaurant prep work (pre-prepared food is increasingly coming from factories). Grocery stores were once almost entirely manually operated, with merchants measuring out amounts of goods from containers behind a counter. The measurement task was effectively automated with the increase of packaged consumer goods in the first third of the 20th century. The inventory control task was automated in the mid 20th century as stores moved to the supermarket format with people getting their own goods off the shelves. The pricing task (putting a price tag on each product, and updating as necessary) was automated in the final third of the 20th century with the advent of the UPC; now the checkout task is being automated. In 1910, the US population was less than 1/3 of what it is today, but there were 55,000 musicians employed (table 2) versus only 40,000 today.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:46 AM on August 29, 2017

What I'm wondering about - and I should've phrased my question better - is whether the manual labour which was replaced by automation has been more than made up for by new kinds of manual labour, or not, on a worldwide scale. An example that's close to the kind of process that I'm thinking of is the massive increase in slave labour growing cotton and sewing labour creating clothes that was prompted by the automation of spinning and weaving. On balance, the proportion of manual labour in the world may not have been decreased by that automation, and it may in fact have been increased.

If there are numbers, it would also be great to have them separated into agricultural vs. non-agricultural manual labour.
posted by clawsoon at 11:12 AM on August 29, 2017

One phenomenon that might be what you are looking for is the increase in home delivery both on the interstate scale due to online shopping and locally. Think of the automation at Amazon.

The huge increase in lawn services is likely due to displaced labor finding something to do, but not directly tied to any particular innovation elsewhere.

If you are willing to accept retail as today's version of manual labor, then an example is the huge number of people employed in cell phone retail.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:07 PM on August 29, 2017

Thinking more about your question, i think the modern version of manual labor is a job anyone xan do with a minimum of training. A job that requires no experience or training or skill where the employee is only selling their time.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:38 PM on August 29, 2017

An interesting question. Some services jobs I remember from my childhood have been eliminated or suffered cutbacks. E.g. bus conductors (gone), bank tellers (replaced by atm machines and online banking), public librarians (automated checkout machines/phone app).

As SemiSalt points out, I've noticed an explosion in online grocery delivery/personal shopper services and last-mile delivery start-ups which hires people gig economy style to do shopping/packaging and delivery. I became aware of this trend because one local last-mile delivery startup contacted me with a sales pitch. (I sell handmade jewelry online and need to get parcels to customers at a reasonable price).

You do not need any skills for most of these jobs, just a driving license and a vehicle of some kind (some startups even accept bicycles and delivery on foot).
posted by whitelotus at 7:23 PM on August 29, 2017

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