Many activists are clamoring for a higher minimum wage. That’s an admirable goal, but is that where the worst problem is? Even at the abysmally low wages of the present moment, we still have 938,000 people being turned away from McDonald’s because there aren’t enough McJobs. The real problem is the lack of meaningful work. In a world of machines and social alienation, meaningful work is as scarce as water in the drought-stricken California Central Valley.
One cause of the employment crisis is relentless outsourcing to foreign countries. However, even more insidious has been the replacement of human workers by machines. For hundreds of years, the Protestant work ethic lauded hard work and efficiency as ideals to strive for. It’s not easy to object to those principles. But what happens when efficiency means eliminating humans? It’s doubtful the early Protestants ever imagined that could be a possibility.
Even up to the present day, many view new technology and efficiency as the main drivers of human progress. For awhile, it seemed like this was indisputable. In his book Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford describes the 25 years after World War II as the “golden age” of the American economy. Productivity, employment, and wages were increasing in synchrony. As with many trends, economists assumed they would continue indefinitely. It was the glorious free market at work.
Then it all came crashing down at the turn of the century.