Labor is Obsolete

“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

St. Francis of Assisi

Labor as we knew it is obsolete. It has been for a while. Sure, vestiges of its greatness still exist in certain sectors, especially in civil service. We all still enjoy many of the workforce customs and regulations that organized labor helped put into place – people-friendly perks governing how employers treat workers. But the sway Labor enjoyed from the 1950’s until the 1980’s has lapsed.

Female workers in an H. J. Heinz can factory stamping out end discs (the discs that fit on either end of each can).
[SOURCE] Public domain.

People might blame capitalists and corporate special interests for finally eroding the power that labor enjoyed, but that’s missing the change that’s really happening. The truth is, labor’s primary power was that they controlled the means of production, but this power has eroded significantly since the 1980’s with the rise of globalization and increasing automation. With the loss of this primary power, it was only matter of time before labor’s influence would also wane.

On the surface, this will seem like a bad thing for “average” people. Labor provided good wages, benefits, and improved working conditions for people working in often demanding jobs. It allowed people to work and live as oppose to working in order to survive.

I only joined the workforce professionally in the early 1990’s, well after labor’s power began to wane. Globalization was already well underway with Japanese goods capturing huge market share within the US, and US manufacturers already sending manufacturing jobs south to Mexico. I started working as a software engineer, which in those days, were treated more as artisans than commodity workers. I’m lucky that the marketing roles I play now offer similar types of jobs where the talent I can bring is of more importance than the simple “function” my “headcount” is to perform.

See, this is the problem with labor as we knew it. Essentially labor is the biological component of corporate machines whose function is to create and sell things and services at a profit for their owners. As long as biological components were the prevailing way to assemble and conduct business practices, the biology held power.

However, with the advent of practices such as assembly line manufacturing, people’s contribution turned from being a craftsman role to being a commoditized role. Sure, experience, skill, and talent influenced the “grade” of the labor commodity, but labor’s role was commoditized nonetheless. It was just a matter of time before capital created more machines to automate and displace more of these commodity labor roles.

Our work culture has changed drastically in these times as well. The commodization of labor allowed for bigger more efficiently run organizations that consumed many cottage industries. After World War II, there was a social contract in place for a generation between companies and workers where you devoted your career to the company and they would take care of you and your family. Whether this was a byproduct of the power of labor, a kind of détente between labor vs. ownership conflicts, this social contract began to disappear in the 1980’s as the power of labor lapsed.

Consider how we talk about labor and careers today. We speak about employees being their own entrepreneurs, or to consider themselves as consultants. In a sense, “full-time headcount” simply means a long term lease on an employees’ contribution. What’s considered a “more flexible” economy also means that employees are now responsible for their own training, keeping their skills as current as possible, and ensuring the jobs they take contribute not only to present day income but future hireability. We are in a weird place in the US economy where we have a glut of entry-level and low skilled labor leading to high unemployment rates and underemployment rates as well a depressed wages, yet many high-skilled jobs go unfilled. Similarly, employees caught in industry turmoil who find their skills and experience out of synch with current economic demand must bear the brunt of costs of rehabilitating themselves to fit new needs.

In this new era of supposed artisanship, how do we help new workers who are still conditioned by an education system created for educating commodity workers as well as displaced workers caught in shrinking commodity labor markets?  How can we help people begin thinking of, and frankly, to gain the luxury of thinking of their career as a craft, especially if they are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and have no time for investing into personal growth?

The funny thing is, in some cases, its never been easier to acquire market-leading skills such as do-it-yourself kits such as for building mobile and social media applications from Apple, Google, or Facebook, skills training and hands-on labs at maker spaces, to massive open online courses (MOOC) that teach the latest skills.

The one thing I would do different with my kids heading towards university is ensure they do more of these do-it-yourself hands-on training opportunities before investing time and money in formal education. Perhaps this involves reviving a system of apprenticeships for these new skills, maybe through maker spaces. You could argue that this is like “trade schools”, except that apprentices would actually be working while gaining an education. In theory, they would already have skills allowing them to work their way through a more formal education process rather than going into massive debt for a degree, which doesn’t provide them market leading skills that are immediately useful when they graduate.

Similarly, we also need to transform our secondary education system to develop our students to be more creative and entrepreneurial. My colleague Mark Finnern has some interesting ideas here for bringing our secondary schools into the 21st Century through his work with If you like his ideas, please register and vote to see his next session at South by Southwest.


  1. […] Here’s a bonus post for the week from an idea I edited out from yesterday’s blog, “Labor is Obsolete”… […]

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