The robots are coming

The robots are coming. Can the 30-hour week be far behind? Will job-sharing get a boost? Will the employment picture change to provide both more leisure and more productive jobs -- or expand the already growing sector of less productive jobs?

The question of shorter hours may be premature, though less so than when it was asked during the furor over "automation" long ago. Remember all the concern about providing support and/or constructive activities for the people who would not have jobs, or at least would not have to work as long hours as they did before the machines took over? Now, as then, some partisans of new technology deny that it causes major unemployment. A General Electric official sees robots opening up tens of thousands of jobs in the years ahead.

Such positive results can be better assured through preparing now for a future workplace about which the robots are just one signal of change. They are arriving when the whole pattern of job distribution in the United States, for example, is different from the days when automation was the catchword. The question, as in so many other realms, is whether individuals and institutions will recognize the shape of tomorrow and not waste time with yesterday's solutions.

One thing not to be ignored is the experience of Japan on the robot frontier. Western industries are edging into the use of robots, to be sure, with less than a thousand at work in West Germany, little more than a hundred in Britain, and several thousand in the US (where General Motors alone expects to have 14,000 in operation by the end of the decade). But Japan already has 60,000 putting out cars, electronics, and other products.

One Japanese plant has robots manufacturing other robots at the rate of a hundred a month with only a fifth as many workers as would be required in a conventional factory. It expects to get down to one-fourteenth of an ordinary workforce. Another company is preparing a new generation of robots devised to walk along automatic assembly lines supervising other robots. In five years the company expects the lines to need no more blue-collar workers. Overall, the already high productivity of Japan's factories is expected to rise by 70 percent during this decade.

With all the present automation, Japan's unemployment rate is only 2 percent. Workers will be retrained for other jobs -- often in sales and front-office work -- when the new robots take over. Trade unions there see no reason to resist the new technology.

In America, on the other hand, the stirrings of the robot army have brought expressions of concern from labor leaders along with hopes of labor sharing in a robot-revitalized US industry. They want to avoid what some see as the threat of large-scale permanent unemployment, degradation of skills and new work hazards in place of some that workers may be relieved of by robots operating safely in undesirable conditions.

Everybody, of course, would like to see the promise and not the pitfalls of change come to pass. In the US this means moving ahead with full awareness of the shifts in employment that are hardly noticed in the public response to "reindustrializing" America. The fact is that the industrial sector of the US economy for all its enormous production, has dwindled greatly in proportion to other sectors. So much, in fact, that undue focus on this sector risks neglecting parts of the mix that account for far more jobs, for greater total output, and for greater output per employee.

According to one scholarly analysis of government figures, the increase alone in jobs in eating and drinking places since 1973 is greater than the total combined jobs in the automobile and steel industries. If "industry" is defined as manufacturing, mining, and construction, it represents a lower proportion of civilian employment in the US (30 percent in 1978) than in West Germany (44 percent) or even in "postindustrial" Britain (38 percent).

As for US output per employee, it was only $16,300 in 1979 in this industrial sector. But it was $30,500 in the "industrial services" including communications, transportation, real estate, utilities, insurance. These also accounted for more total output.

Meanwhile, in the burgeoning sector of retail and service industries -- including the fast-food places -- output per employed person was only $9,853 in 1979. (All the output figures are in 1972 dollars.) With 43 percent of total employment in 1979, this sector accounted for only 26 percent of total output, about the same as a decade before when it represented only 38 percent of jobs.

Thus, in broad terms, American employment appears to have been growing fastest where that much-sought goal of "productivity" has been lowest. Many of these jobs though useful and important to the public being served, are routine to the jobholder and offer little training for or expectation of advancement.

Is technological change going to be allowed to divert more and more workers into low-productivity, dead-end jobs -- while the robots make hay? Or will the steps of organization, training, and retraining be taken to ensure that technological advance releases more human beings for pursuits satisfying to themselves as well as necessary to society? These are some of the questions that can't be left t o yet another generation of robots.

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