Labor Day falls on the first Monday every September. It became a federal holiday in 1894. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, the average American worked 12-hour days and 7-day weeks just to survive. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 worked in factories and mines across the country. Labor Day celebrate workers, their achievements and the protection of their rights. However, why do we (and should we) still celebrate Labor Day in 2020 in the Information Age?
From Industrial to Information Age
Many associate the Information Age with the end of the 20th century. However, it began in the 1940s…during World War II. Government invested in new technologies, particularly those used by for military code-breaking. Moreover, development in electronics and computers for the military eventually transitioned to the business world.
1959 marked a key milestone in the Information Age. Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor invented the silicon chip. Significantly, the silicon chip inscribed electronic data in a microscopic space. Accordingly, this was a breakthrough for computers which assumed a central role in economic life. Computer chips ushered in telecommunications and on October 29, 1969, the Internet was born [the first ARPANET link].
The economic impact of the Internet imparted an economic boom in the 1990s. Furthermore, annual growth in the United States exceeded three percent (3%) for the first time in decades. Computers formed the basis for automation and started disrupting traditional labor occupations. One dramatic example is the automobile assembly line.
For a century, workers labored on assembly lines. They often performed simple, repetitive tasks. The only thing celebrated on Labor Day was a day-long reprieve. Popular culture casts manual labor in a dark shadow. For example, in the 2005 Charlie the Chocolate Factory movie, Charlie’s dad, initially worked tirelessly on an assembly line. Specifically, he put caps on bottles of toothpaste. Obviously, a tedious a depressing occupation.
Rise of Automation
Labor issues bear on political and social tensions. Former presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders proposed in 2015 a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour. While garnering some support, the labor market is fragile with respect to innovation. In other words, demanding higher wages often induce employers to replace them with automation. Workers are expensive. Just some direct costs include:
- Human resources;
- Paid leave;
- Insurance; and
In addition, companies necessarily restrict worker hours for health and safe reasons. Unquestionably, management compares the direct and indirect costs of labor against technology solutions. For example, the cost of a grocery store self-checkout kiosk averages around $30,000. A four-lane system is approximately $100,000. These units allow customers to scan and pay for their items; no cashier required.
Some retail experts suggest self-service checkout kiosks are not job-killers. Rather, they simply increase efficiency. Cashiers support multiple customers simultaneously. Consequently, stores combat traffic spikes and service more customers during busy times. Albeit, labor is still involved but to a lesser extent. IBM and Fujitsu develop and patent self-administering technologies at an ever-growing pace.
The Alien Dreadnought
At the most extreme, some propose machines make machines without any human intervention. During a second quarter earnings call this year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk discussed some of Tesla’s progress with its Alien Dreadnought factory concept. Moreover, according to Musk, Tesla’s facilities constitute a precursor to the Alien Dreadnought.
“We’re bringing a massive amount of effort into manufacturing and engineering the machine that makes the machine.”Elon Musk
Universal Basic Income
So ubiquitous is the drive to automation, some consider it paving the way to fewer paid jobs. For example, another former presidential candidate Andrew Yang stated that automation caused the loss of 4 million manufacturing jobs. Consequently, Yang advocated for a universal basic income of $1,000 per month.
So concerned are labor analysts that technology displace labor, they wonder “what is left to do?” If automation and technology take away traditional jobs, where do we go? In other words, is the technological utopia a life of leisure without any work?
Celebrate Labor Day for New Reasons
We celebrate Labor Day for a good reason…we like to work. Particularly, working on things we find challenging.
“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”Rumi
Technology, automation and innovation provides new opportunities. Particularly, to forgo the repetitive and dull, and achieve the remarkable. For every door that closes on an obsolete job, a new door opens. We can haul water in a bucket, or we build pipes and aqueducts to transport it. Those bucket-haulers are out of work. But do we shed tears for the loss of such a menial job? Do we miss our hand vacuum when our Roomba cleans our home while we are gone?
On this day, celebrate how far labor has evolved. Continue to work. It gives us purpose. It elevates what we achieve as a civilization. But recognize the new opportunities for work. That cars may more safely drive. That robots perform dangerous activities for humans. Our intellect (and compensation) rise as the rote and repetitive tasks of traditional labor give way to new challenges. Automation and robotics promote labors to supervisors. Going back to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, recall that Mr. Bucket’s old job gave way to repairing the robot….a robot worker he now supervises.
We celebrate Labor Day. The innovation we protect through intellectual property ushers in the next generation of workforce. Once that elevates the mind over the muscle and gives workers more freedom to pursue jobs they love doing.