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Our real employment problem? Too many people e-mailing spreadsheets

Our labor force is increasingly dominated by so-called metaworkers who analyze the work of others and get paid more – often enormously more – than the people who actually work.

By Rod Beecham / March 16, 2011

Monbulk, Australia

Once upon a time, work and agriculture were synonymous. In the late 18th century, more than 90 percent of the US workforce was engaged directly with farming. The reason for this was that people needed food, and in the days before sophisticated agricultural machinery and efficient methods of transport, refrigeration, and storage, the growing of food was both labor-intensive and an essential part of community life. Agriculture was something we had to do.

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Nowadays we still need food as much as we did in the 18th century, but less than 2 percent of the US workforce is engaged directly with farming.

Jobs once involved real work

In the century between 1860 and 1960, work meant industrial work. At the height of the postwar boom, the sourcing of raw materials and the conversion of these to manufactured goods occupied one-third of the entire US workforce. The necessity of this work was less obvious than the necessity of farming, but there is little doubt that many manufactured goods improved our standard of living.

By 2000, the proportion of US workers engaged in manufacturing had fallen to 13 percent, and the number continues to fall. Automation, and the movement of manufacturing offshore, where labor is cheaper, are the main reasons for this.

The rise of the metaworkers

We know that the service sector has grown. People work in shops, at fast-food outlets, in restaurants, and in hotels. There are probably more hairdressers than metalworkers. Insurance companies, banks, and other sellers of financial products and services are numerous. The consulting industry is alive and well. But the necessity of these occupations is less obvious than the necessity of manufacturing, which is itself less obviously necessary than agriculture. The market these occupations serve is also, in many respects, new.

We like to keep our hair neat, for example, but it seems clear that there are more hairdressers in operation than we actually need. The reason for the growth of the service industries is the growth of the class who use them: the metaworkers. These are people who eat out because they are time-poor. They stay in hotels because they travel a lot. They take out insurance policies and savings and investment portfolios because they are paid a lot of money. They engage consultants because the nature of their work invites consultancy.

Robert Reich labeled these workers "symbolic analysts" on the grounds that they perform problem-solving functions involving the manipulation of numerical or verbal symbols. I call them metaworkers because they do not work, in the sense of growing or making something or caring for anyone, at all. Their occupations exist only because of the work of others – but it is the work of others they analyze and, to a large extent, control.


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