Ask most people about the industrial revolution and most of them (the ones who have heard of it, anyway,) will tell you that it was something that happened a long time ago- maybe in the 1830's or 1840's. Unfortunately, the industrial revolution is going on all around us to this day, and many of us are still refusing to face what it has really done to the world.
Before the industrial revolution, over 90% of the world's population worked in agriculture. Mechanization has reduced that to the point that today, only about 3% of Americans are employed producing food, and they are producing far more than we can eat.
Well, perhaps Millet exaggerated the beauty of agricultural life a little.
The elimination of most agricultural labor produced tremendous stresses, as anyone who knows, for example, about the period of the enclosures in England, will be aware. However, the new world of industrialization managed, at least temporarily, to replace agricultural jobs with manufacturing ones, albeit while usually giving workers a cruel life. But the pressures of capitalism and industrialization being what they are, manufacturers inevitably found ways to achieve the same level of production with less and less labor. From the cotton gin to the assembly line to the computer and the robot, the story of the last two centuries has been that of the continuous contraction of the need for human labor.
Then and now- No workers needed any more
I suppose it was in the seventies or the eighties that I first really started hearing one of the most incomprehensibly stupid myths ever: the notion that computers and the information age would produce more jobs than it eliminated. Why in heaven's name would businessmen make major expenses in a new technology, if the result was the need to employ more people, most of them more expensive than the industrial workers they replaced? No rational person could ever fall for this nonsense, one would think, but then people in their tens and hundreds of millions fell for supply side economics, cutting taxes to raise government revenue, the notion that business owners were one and all so honest that no laws were needed to prevent some of them from abusive behavior. And these silly, destructive myths still continue to grow; the latest example being austerity- the notion that you grow the economy by starving it, a sort of economic version of the medical practice of using leeches to drain the blood of sick people.
Preindustrial agricultural life may have been hard, but it didn't lead to things like this.
Well, here's the truth. It's one of those truths like global warming which is one hundred percent obvious, but which is denied far and wide by those with a short term economic interest in not facing reality: Those jobs are never coming back. Never. Oh, if we had a rational tariff policy, we could get a bunch of manufacturing jobs back from the third world, but even that will be only a stopgap. This country is never again going to have enough full time jobs for what used to be considered full employment.
What must be done about this if the United States and a large part of the rest of the world are not to sink into chaos? Well, here is what I think is a minimal answer:
First, the working life of the average person must be shortened. That means lowering the normal retirement age to no more than 60.
Second, enough must be provided in the way of Social Security and medical benefits so those over 60 can actually leave the employment market. That means an increase of at least 20% in Social Security benefits, and a true one-payer health care system which totally bypasses the current insurance system; this is the only way to afford what must be done.
Third, the work week must be decreased. Americans currently work far more hours per year that their counterparts in Europe; even the European work week is not low enough to carry us into the future. I propose that the nation transition to a four day work week of eight hours a day. I would do this by immediately having three day weekends once a month; after five years this would be increased to three day weekends every other week; finally after another five years, the four day work week and three day weekend would become standard. In return for this 20% decrease in hours worked, workers would accept a 10% cut in pay. Those who could not live with this reduction would be free to find some weekend employment.
This is work too, even though it doesn't make any money for the Koch Brothers
Finally, we must break the prevailing notion in this country, a product of the so-called Protestant "work ethic" and the hard line propaganda of the capitalists, that no worker is living a meaningful life if he is not making money for someone else. The industrial revolution has always promised a life of greater fulfilment, but that fulfilment has always been kept just beyond our reach by the rich who employ most of us, who endlessly demand more and more productivity in return for what is necessary for us to survive. What is moral has come to be defined as whatever most benefits the rich. It is time that we stop letting the likes of the Koch Brothers and Mitt Romney define what is good for us. Most of the people under 21 in this country are never going to have good full time jobs which pay what they need to survive; it is time for them to decide if they want to spend their lives in miserable poverty and constant stress, or if they want something more than that. They will be fought every step of the way by rich predators. If the only way for all of the rest of us to have decent lives is crushing those predators out of existence, then so be it.