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.