Too Many People - Too Little Work

One of the current problems in the developed world is that there is too little work to go around. As the two biggest areas of traditional enterprise (manufacturing and agriculture) have become increasingly mechanized, the number of people needed has declined.

In much of the industrialized world agriculture now requires under 5% of the workforce. Many industrial firms typically run at 70-80% of capacity. Societies have adapted in two ways, the most commonly considered is the rise of services, the other is the creation of new products of marginal utility. Even these steps have not solved the problem, the unemployment rate is kept at a modest level, but the percentage of people employed continues to decline. The two numbers don't track because official reporting agencies exclude various categories of the non-working from the labor force.

While natural resources were cheap and abundant the creation of products of marginal utility was a favored technique to keep the economy going. A stroll down the aisles of any large retailer will provide an almost unending range of examples: patent medicines, natural food "supplements", highly processed snack foods, toiletries and cosmetics, gadgets of limited use (my recent favorite was an avocado knife), sugar and "spring" water and other beverages, and so on.

In addition there has been the push to replace items that are still usable with ones that are newer or more fashionable. Many items are deliberately made with shortened lifetimes to encourage replacement. Even with all this market manipulation, there are still more people than jobs.

In the developing world, mechanization has happened much more slowly and the number of people involved in agriculture and light manufacturing has tended to remain higher. The trend of "globalization" over the past several decades has started to change this dynamic as well. More and more people are forced off their land when they can no longer compete against mechanized farming, whether local or via imports from elsewhere. These people tend to move into urban areas which are now bursting at the seams and are seeing a rise of a new class of marginally employed slum dwellers.

Things are coming to a head. The cheap resources are drying up and the population is still growing. It is not clear if the rise in the number of failed states and those subject to semi-permanent rebellion is due directly to these trends, but it hard to image other causes which would be as important. Constant conflict has a way of spilling over borders and turning into wider conflicts. Where this might lead is unknowable, but recent examples of such regional conflicts don't make the prospect of more such a desirable prospect.

The problems need to be addressed on three fronts.

1. Population growth must be constrained, and, eventually reversed. Some advanced societies are already below the replacement rate, but social planners see this as a threat to economic growth, rather than as an opportunity for restructuring. Developing societies are still growing too quickly, even those, like China, with harsh population control policies. There are no serious discussions taking place in this area. On one side are fringe groups like Zero (and Negative) Population Growth, on the other, business as usual.

2. Products of marginal utility must be eliminated. The limited resources which remain must be devoted to producing essentials, and the energy consumption and pollution that are associated with production already exceed sustainable levels. Recycling and efficiency improvements will only delay the inevitable shortages. The world needs to consume less "stuff" while distributing the products that are needed more equitably.

3. Work must be redefined. Perhaps it will be necessary to go back to less mechanized production to keep people occupied. Both China and the USSR had full employment policies during their "communist" phases. It was felt that the social good of giving everyone a job was more important that making firms "profitable". Without capital owners there was no pressure to maximize return on investment. The systems failed, not because they were inefficient, but because they were corrupt and didn't produce the products intended in the quantities needed and with adequate quality. This was a governance issue, not an economic one. A lack of checks and balances in government meant there were no watchdogs to limit misdeeds. The failing was not central planning, it was the lack of democratic institutions.

Other societies have tried to maintain inefficiencies, especially in agriculture. Both India and Mexico have large subsistence farming segments. These small farmers are now being displaced by the loss of subsidies and the rise of mechanized production. In India it has led to tens of thousands of suicides by farmers as they have gone broke. In Mexico it has led to a huge migration to urban areas and into the US by farmers who have been thrown off their land.

Where labor is cheap and mechanization is costly, men are substituted for machines. This can be seen on road crews in third world countries where shovels replace bulldozers. I'm not suggesting that back breaking work be restored, but that, perhaps, mechanization be limited to the most arduous tasks. Mass production of consumer goods might be replaced by artisan production. There are already such niche products, ranging from the "haut couture" of French fashion, to the almost totally hand made Leica camera. Small scale production can also mean that products can be tailored to meet the requirements of the consumer more closely.

There remains the issue of technological obsolesce. Look at the evolution of the digital camera. Within a span of ten years cameras have gone from one mega-pixel resolution to 20+. Other improvements have also been incorporated. The conventional wisdom says this only happened because of the pressure of competition backed by the profit motive. This is certainly true, given the current economic arrangement. But there might be other ways to foster improvement without the waste of continually junking hardly used items. We don't know how many firms bring out improvements incrementally so that they can have a new offering each year. Each generation only has to be slightly better than the competition to gain market share. Why bring out a product which is "too good" before it's needed? If R&D was fostered by some other mechanism, it might be possible to get the benefits of improvements that weren't timed to maximize continuing sales. There have been experiments with offering prizes that have led to innovation. Perhaps other schemes could be devised.

Products should be made to last and be repaired, and should be built to be recycled. This implies changes to manufacturing techniques. Many electronics products can no longer be repaired. They are built by robots and humans can't deal with such small scale components. Ease of disassembly should be a design criteria not just ease of assembly.

If we do contemplate creating less "stuff" and having what is made last longer, then what happens to all the workers? There are many options. People could work less, either for fewer years or less during the year. With fewer material possessions the amount of time required to pay for this material decreases. Many services that are offered because people don't have time to do for themselves could be eliminated. I never fail to be surprised by those who pay to run on a treadmill while also paying to have someone mow their lawn. Mow your own lawn! Save twice.

The rise of online communities, especially social networks, shows that humans have not really changed. When life was slower, people met in the town square, over the back fence or at the local pub. They seemed to have no problem filling up their spare time with companionship and local activities. One mediocre singer now blankets the world. In a prior age there would be local performers in each community. There is room for both.

Perhaps there needs to be a type of national service. Rather than being dedicated to militarism as is common at present, the young and hearty could spend a couple of years supplying the labor needed to grow food and perform other essential, but less desirable tasks. There are many tasks which don't require much training to be performed and a rotating workforce would work well. I'm not sure what to do about brain surgeons.

It is clear that things are going to have to change. Some changes are already underway and are irreversible. Population pressure is causing the collapse of fish stocks, the desertification of marginal crop lands and water shortages. Non-renewable feed stocks such as fossil fuels and rare earth metals are rapidly rising in price. Demand reduction is the only possible long-term solution. Less demand means less need for conventional work. Everything is connected.

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Comments

you dare to speak it!

The reality that population needs to be controlled is something that is never talked about, it's not PC.
But I agree, considering limited global resources it's a pretty obvious thing, from fish to global warming, this is not sustainable. While one probably doesn't want to step into the issue of a woman's right to choose, certainly we can step into this constant block of access to birth control, awareness and family planning, which also has been blocked by those same radical religious right. It's pretty astounding for if they really wish to stop abortions on moral grounds, the very obvious answer to that is access to family planning, education and also raising the financial capabilities of the individuals on the planet to feed and take care of their families. Add to that many cultures refusing to look at the realities of a global overpopulation plus the repression of women, we have an issue here that is a great wall of silence.

I must say you have guts to mention it.

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Education

The strongest effect on population growth is the education of women. If they are literate and can earn money by their own labor the number of children per woman drops very rapidly, often within one generation.

There is no need for draconian measures, although perhaps China could see no other way since the task of education was just too large to be handled in a reasonable time frame.

Of course, the extra education and economic independence also means that the restrictions of a patriarchal society have to be removed. This also implies access to family planning services. I don't think abortion is as big an issue in those places like Africa which don't have a strong Catholic influence. Birth control isn't frowned upon as much either, it is mostly an issue of access, knowledge and cost.

Providing education through secondary school is also one of the cheapest forms of foreign aid. A bit of assistance with building schools and getting some supplies and then everything else can be handled locally. It wasn't that long ago in the US when recent high school grads were sent to teach in prairie communities, often even without the year of normal school expected.

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Why Do You Wish To Take More From The Working Class

The American Family requires a minimum of two incomes. They wake early to allow plenty of time to drop the kids off at the babysitter before arriving at the office. Kids are shuffled from Sitter to School and back to Sitter where they await the arrival of their parent. On the way home with the kids in tow, someone needs supplies from the store to complete an assignment, or a book from the library for a report. Often a trip to the grocery store is needed for packed lunches and easy-fix breakfast foods. Fresh fruit is always needed and must be bought fresh. By the time the family is settled at home, the hour is late. The one thing that keeps mom and dad energized is their night-time intimacy. It's all they got! Responsibility is high for these adult men and women. Birth control is NOT 100%. Only by abstaining is there 100% guarantee. Or obtaining a same-sex partner. Or, taking the advise of the Surgeon General in Bill Clinton's administration - Elders, where she suggested masturbation.

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Killing should not be an option

It's not only the "radical religious right" that block forms of birth control. Radicals of all sorts believe their religion, their nationality, their family blood, etc, is SUPERIOR and should not be stifled in their growth as a population of SUPERIORS that will eventually take over the world!!!! We have some very strong egos.

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what do you mean?

Firstly he's talking about this in terms of economics, it is an economics site.

But are you being sarcastic or are you a closet social conservative?

I don't think he is referring to any particular race, culture and so on here.

that's the problem with these topics it always going into issue areas where I don't think the intent is.

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Intent is Meaningless

The use of the phrase "Population Control" must be used very cautiously. The issue is more workers than jobs. A solution that would not threaten the human element to this issue could be to have wage earnings high enough to cover the cost of living. Our parents had the ability to raise their family on a single income. Parents today cannot. Housing, food, and fuel prices have sky-rocketed. Take home pay is insufficient to cover these basic needs. Americans are maxed out on their credit cards, employers no longer give raises on an annual basis, there is no sign of light at the end of the tunnel. If wages were high enough, families would have the option to return to the good ol days of single family households.

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Single Income Family Households

either the woman or the man of the house is the breadwinner. The other, remains at home to raise the family. It doesn't have to be the woman that stays at home. But since we are on the topic of women in the work place, I might remind the reader that women still earn less then men on an average.

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uh

At this point I need to remind you that this is an economics site. Assumptions claiming there is only one breadwinner in the house is a cultural assumption. It is also a cultural assumption that one must stay at home to raise a family, again a cultural assumption, on what your personal beliefs of the power structure and organizational structure of a family unit should be.

None of this has anything to do with labor economics, statistics.

It's off topic to this site's focus.

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"Family"

What roles, what constitutes a family is sociology, cultural, which is way off topic for this site.

I'm basically requesting you start posting on economics and not sociological definitions that have more to do with sociology mores, culture. This is not a cultural website and most assuredly not a social conservative dogma site.

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if wages were high enough

if wages were high enough, one would be able to adequately maintain their household with a single job. But the cost of housing, food and heating oil has increased at a higher rate than wages. Because the American worker's wage does not go far enough to maintain their household, it has become a necessity for dual income earnings. This causes the need for secondary jobs.

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There are a lot of implications

You are assuming that women or families somehow do not want dual careers and this is quite a sexist assumption.

Moreover, secondary job implies somehow someone doesn't have their own, equal career to the other.

There is an assumption by you that implies magically someone would prefer to stay home, have no career in a family and that is not the case.

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Not Assuming

Truly, there is a great desire among households to be stable economically on a single income. Many households occupied by even as low as one individual find it necessary to supplement their full-time 40 hour salary with a part-time paying position. This is required to simply make ends meet.

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Materialism and Instant Gratification

Slowing down our need for things and zeroing in on the basics can certainly slow the depletion of non renewables. However, we still have more workers than work. What I might suggest is that everyone be given a wage that will allow them to adequately support themselves and their family. This should allow the two income family to be reduced to a single income household. Parents that wish to stay home and raise their family would be allowed this essential element in proper development of the future generations. This "people first" would set a social responsibility that we have been lacking since the 70's. Full time working hours should be cut to 32 hours per week. A 4 day work week should be implemented to save fuel consumption. Perhaps more job-sharing could become a way of life.

I know many working mothers and working fathers that work only because their family can simply not make it on a single income. If afforded, they'd be home with the kids giving them the best head start.

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Looking Backward

I think you might enjoy reading the utopian novel "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy.
You can even read it online, but every public library should have a copy:
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/624

The author designed a society where people would only work for 20 years, say, 25-45. The rest of their lives would be spent in personal enrichment. His ideas spawned a social movement which was cut short by his untimely death.

There is a nice summary on Wikipedia as well.

Job sharing has been discussed many times, but firms find it cheaper to hire fewer people and overwork them then to spread the work around. A lot of this has to do with the fixed costs of fringe benefits. Notice that a firm like Walmart which offers few benefits to most workers has no problem with a large, part time, and revolving staff.

If benefits were not tied to a given employer, then there could be more job flexibility. Notice that Social Security doesn't affect most hiring decisions since the withholding tax gets paid regardless of whether it is two $30,000 employees or one $60,000. There is a small exception for those who earn more than the cutoff, but that is a tiny part of the workforce ($102,000).

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health care

I've heard repeatedly from CEOs who are pure capitalists that they save more money on health care taxes in EU countries that what they pay in the US. Anybody noticed that single payer health care is off the table this election yet in terms of overall costs it appears to be the most effective on multiple levels, including hiring practices.

If anyone knows of a blogger who specializes on benefits cost analysis, multinational comparisons, I'd like to hear more about this.

If we have a series of capitalist CEOs wanting single payer I don't see why it's so off the table.

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Health Blog

Try this site, I think it is exactly what you are looking for:

http://www.healthbeatblog.org/

The author is a journalist who specializes in health economics.

Interestingly I agree with her goals, but we seem to differ on which defects in the current US health system are most important.

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thx, offtopic

on the user look up, I'm still not sure what you want, I've been putting in under "My account" a tracking method on all of your comments with replies, forums posts with comments, new comments (the format is messed up but the info is there, working on it as I type).

Just put in the "new site" blog comment thread what features you want and let me know. I get to things as I can write them up and also try to find consensus that everyone agrees.

Two things I am aware of are the images, putting images in your posts through upload and the WYSIWYG editor that I'm working on.

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My Utopia

My Utopia would allow parents to raise their families without worrying about Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel to cook their food. By spending quantity time with their offspring, they would be given a truly meaningful education in WHAT'S IMPORTANT. Once the children are raised, the parents would join the work force. The matured worker would have so much to offer. Their place in society would be respected instead of today's world view "If you are over 40 you are over the hill and have nothing to offer an employer"

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Lack of work or imagination?

Is this a lack of work, or imagination?

In Michigan, we have cities paying of thousands of dollars to destroy forclosed houses, (tens of thousands in materials and labor)while autoworkers are unemployed. Why not train the autoworker to restore the house and provide a tax holiday to the new owner.

In the developing world, workers could transcribe every news article and noteworthy book in the history of man to electronic format. When they are finished, they could transcribe content to other languages. Imagine having all literature at your disposal for the cost of a few books per year.

Some types of work require no work at all. Take the fire department or police, generally these people are ready to work. When there is no fire, or crime, firefighters and police maintain work readiness, which is part of the job description, but not the actual "work."

As for the two wage-earner requirement for families comment, this is the result of treating the family home as an investment rather that an heirloom. If Americans were living in inherited homes, the second wage-earner would be a matter of choice. A properly constructed home can last centuries and be handed down to your children.

Instead, we are returning to the nomadic ways of early man roving the countryside for sustenance -- famine will surely ensue. The overpopulation problem will cure itself.

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