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Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?: America’s Debate over Technological Unemployment, 1929-1981

Author(s):Bix, Amy Sue
Reviewer(s):Zieger, Robert H.

Published by EH.NET (September 2000)

Amy Sue Bix. Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?: America’s Debate over

Technological Unemployment, 1929-1981. Studies in Industry and Society.

Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. x + 376 pp.

Illustrations and index. $45.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-8018-6244-2.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Robert H. Zieger, Department of History,

University of Florida.

Men (and Women) at Work?

Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs? is an able and lucidly written account

of the ongoing debate in the United States over the effects of technology on

employment. Drawing on a wide range of published materials as well as on

corporate, labor, and governmental archives, Amy Sue Bix traces in rich detail

the views of three generations of policy makers, labor leaders, engineers, and

business executives to come about the relationship between expanding

productivity and the availability of jobs. A notable feature of the debate has

been the absence of a definitive empirical method for weighing the impact of

technology on employment. Thus, over the seventy years covered in the book

(which deals with developments over the past twenty years as well as with the

period indicated in the title), celebrants and critics of workplace technology

have tended to make the same arguments, often with the same rhetorical

embellishments. According to corporate leaders, engineers, and other partisans

of labor-saving technology, expanding production inevitably lowers prices,

increases consumption, and boosts employment. Labor leaders, social critics,

and troubled politicians, on the other hand, have focused technology’s role in

work force reduction and have argued that promises of long-term growth in job

opportunities have proved unduly optimistic or even illusory.

In Bix’s telling, however, virtually no one called for an end to technological

advance. Laborites, for example, have accepted and even celebrated

technology-facilitated productivity gains, arguing only that workers should

share in them through shorter hours, higher wages, and greater voice in the

actual implementation of new workplace regimes. Three generations of labor

leaders, from William Green and John L. Lewis in the 1930s through Walter

Reuther in the 1950s and John Sweeney currently have repudiated Ludism,

confining their critique of job-related technology to advocacy of

worker-friendly regulation, job training, and the passing on of productivity

savings to workers and consumers. Critical of the blithe optimism of corporate

spokesmen and their scientific and engineering allies that productivity gains

lead inexorably to expanded (and enriched) employment opportunities, even those

most troubled by job loss have accepted the inevitably of continuous workplace


Employers have dismissed concerns about job loss, although often in a

defensive idiom. Equating technological advance with progress, and, in turn,

a commitment to progress with national identity, corporate leaders and their

scientific allies have painted a bright new world of abundance and ease.

Rejecting calls for public intervention in the development and application of

labor-saving devices, business leaders such as Henry Ford and machine-tool

innovator John Diebold acknowledged that inevitably some workers would be

displaced and might suffer local and temporary hardships. But the advantages

of expanded production and its concomitant proliferation of consumer goods far

outweighed these minor side effects. Popular writers and editorial cartoonists

might depict soulless robots and inexorable machines spitting out superfluous

unemployed workers as well as appliances and amenities, but resistance to the

machine was in fact ignorant, self-defeating, and even unpatriotic. “Workplace

mechanization,” writes Bix in summary of industrialists’ views, “represented

the inevitable, the only possible way to attain national success.” (166-67).

She quotes economist Benjamin Anderson: “on no account,” declared this banking

analyst of the 1930s, “must we retard or interfere with the most rapid

utilization of new inventions.” (166)

The debate over technology and unemployment has waxed and waned since the onset

of the Great Depression. It raged most fiercely during the 1930s, when

joblessness rose to catastrophic proportions. During World War II, full

employment and military needs dampened it. It re-emerged, now stimulated by

early computerization and other forms of electronic replication, during the

prosperous era of the 1950s and early 1960s, with labor leaders such as Walter

Reuther calling attention to the problem of lingering unemployment amidst

otherwise bright economic prospects. Congressional hearings in 1955 on what

was now called “automation” demonstrated that even during good times, the

specter of worker redundancy walked hand-in-hand with the promise of a brave

new consumerist world. By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, of course, the

computer revolution raised these issues in a new idiom, although corporate

down-sizing, globalization, and widening income disparities have tended to

merge discrete apprehensions about technology’s adverse effects with broader

concerns about job security and living standards.

Bix touches on a wide range of industries and employment situations in

surveying the technology-vs.-unemployment theme. Drawing on TNEC and WPA

studies, she examines the experiences of telephone operators, musicians, steel

workers, coal miners, and railwaymen buffeted by the demands of new

technologies in the 1930s. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the turn of

packinghouse workers, longshoremen, clerical workers, and electrical workers.

Unions attempted various strategies in an effort to cope with mechanical

displacement. In the 1930s, the musicians union, faced with the substitution

of recorded music for live orchestras in movie houses, launched a massive

public relations campaign, hoping futilely to stimulate an outraged public to

demand live music. In the 1950s, the West Coast Longshoremen’s Union followed

an opposite course, capitulating to what its leaders regarded as the inevitable

inroads of containerization while securing for its existing membership generous

severance and manning reduction payments.

Bix’s account of the protracted and continuing debate over technology and work

is enlivened by frequent references to popular literature and films. In

addition, drawings and cartoons, some hailing the brave new future of a

worker-less future, others depicting with grim foreboding the social chaos sure

to afflict hapless displaced workers, give the debate vivid expression.

Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs? also brings to attention governmental

efforts in the 1930s, primarily through studies conducted by the Works Progress

Administration and testimony offered at the Temporary National Economic

Committee congressional hearings, to establish an empirical basis for weighing

the impact of industrial technology on employment. The latter chapters ably

survey a wide range of opinion drawn from more contemporary sources, attesting

to the continuing pertinence of concern about the relationship between

employment and technology.

Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs touches on but explores only briefly a

number of key themes that the general subject would seem to entail. The book

is more of a history of discourse about employment and technology than it is a

social history of the subject. Thus, themes of gender and, especially, race

receive only brief explicit exposition, for example. The social context in

which employers and engineers devise and implement labor-saving devices

likewise is only glancingly dealt with. Thus, for example, some observers have

argued that rapid mechanization of labor- intensive departments in metal

working, paper making, and meat packing after World War II represented less a

technological imperative than an effort on the part of employers to curtail

African American employment in operations that had proven unusually susceptible

to worker militancy and trade union pressure. This is not an issue that

captures Bix’s attention, however.

Likewise, Bix invokes but never quite explores in detail the implications of

the consumerist justifications to which employers increasingly turned in

justifying their resort to labor-saving measures. In 1951, Fortune magazine

published a special edition titled “USA-The Permanent Revolution,” boldly

proclaiming that mass affluence and its attendant consumerism constituted the

real revolution of the 20th century. In the 1960s, social critics such as

Herbert Marcuse, Charles Reich, Paul Goodman, E. F. Schumacher, and Christopher

Lasch-none of whom receives mention in Inventing Ourselves Out of

Jobs?-expressed the reverse of this kind of celebration of material plenty,

which in corporate America’s view depended on continuous technological

innovation. In a sense, competing visions of America centering on consumerism

(and, thus, technology) are the modern echo of the 18th century debate between

adherents of the civic republic and partisans of a commercial republic.

Implicit also, but underdeveloped in the book, is the question as to whether

work can remain an adequate vehicle for the social identities that before the

Great Depression it conveyed. Many of the jobs that Americans hold today are

far removed from productive enterprise, at least as it has traditionally been

understood. Technological advance and productivity gains have made it possible

for televangelists, day traders, and historians to flourish. Why these

particular occupations should attain public certification while other kinds of

non-productive employment languish or are suppressed is a question of culture

and politics, not one of technology per se.

Bix suggests rather than asserts her own sympathies. Her prose comes alive

when she exposes the fatuities and excesses of technology celebrants while

taking on a more troubled and somber tone when exploring the plight of the

displaced and dissident. Her dismay with those who equate America’s purposes

and promises with technological progress and consumerist indulgence is evident,

although never strident. She seems reluctant to concede that ordinary people

might have benefitted from technological innovation and at times flirts with

nostalgia for the good old days of man-killing coal mines and lethal railroad

work. Even so, Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs? is a useful survey of

the ongoing debate over the relationships between technology and work in the

modern United States.

Robert Zieger has worked extensively in the fields of American labour history

and twentieth century history. His latest book is America’s Great War: World

War One and the American Experience, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII