Digital-revolution fallout: Where will the jobs come from?

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Labor-saving devices may wind up giving us a lot of free time, but not in the way we suspected half a century ago. We may simply be unemployed.

When I was a kid, I used to see articles wondering what Americans would do with all the leisure time we were going to have.

Labor-saving devices, it was believed, would increasingly leave us with time on our hands – maybe too much. In 50 years, these authors of 50 years ago speculated, the average American might work only 15 or 20 hours a week. How would we find enough things to keep us busy?

Well, labor-saving devices may wind up giving us a lot of free time, but not in the way we suspected half a century ago. We may simply be unemployed.

I got that notion by looking at some statistics on major Internet companies.

Amazon, eBay, Facebook, TenCent, Google and Apple posted combined sales last year of about $1.2 trillion. Their aggregate market worth is more than $1 trillion. Yet these half-dozen titans of the new economy, all told, employ only about 324,000 workers.

By contrast, General Electric — the only company that’s been part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average since its creation in 1896 — posted sales last year of $147 billion while employing 305,000 people. The Internet companies logged about $3.7 million in sales per employee, nearly eight times what GE posted.

Obviously, the Internet companies enrich our lives in many ways and help us be more productive. I’m sure an academic somewhere has taken a stab at putting an economic value on what the Web has done for us, and it will no doubt be a subject of study for years to come.

But as things stand now, the digital revolution is upending a generations-old model of employment in our society. A similar shift took place when mechanization — and the creation of massive businesses like GE — emptied American farms.

As we cope with the digital transformation that’s under way, I hope our business and political leaders keep in mind that not everyone is cut out to be an Internet entrepreneur or a highly paid geek. Regular people need good jobs, too.

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