What did an average American town look like before the age of automobile? Railroads were the major form of transportation for long distances, in the towns horse driven carriages were the dominant mode.
Owning a horse and a carriage was only for the rich. A horse demanded attention and so for every horse driven carriage on the road a man was employed. Transportation was expensive and inconvenient and the towns were small and stank of dung.
Automobile transformed everything. Transportation became economical, convenient, faster and the overall quality of life improved. A vast number of carriage drivers became unemployed and were replaced by a small number of people employed in car manufacturing, servicing, buying and selling.
Similarly with the advent of computer age, a large number of people employed as clerks and secretaries and generally responsible for processing, organizing and retrieving data for usage became redundant. Efficiency and quality of life improved immensely.
Historically those professions that have been eliminated by leaps in technology are replaced by new professions which require higher skills and cater to new needs.
At the start of human civilization, existence and survival was a struggle. More and more men were needed to ensure survival. With time, man started dominating his environment and survival became less of a struggle. Every day needs, which were all people were concerned about few centuries ago are not what people in the developed world are worried about today. I believe that less than 10% of the population needs to work in the modern society to produce and deliver the goods needed for everybody.
But economy and the free market system works on demand and supply. Each individual is a source of supply to the society, which is the work he can do with his skills. For that work he receives the wages which translate to demand. Thus, it is necessary for people to be employed in activities which generate remuneration to keep the economic machine working. But efficiency kills need for labor and employment. There is an old Sanskrit saying which translates to - “Extremes are always bad”. Is too much of efficiency a bad thing?
Looking at advanced economies we find that most people are employed in service sector. While manufacturing can be scaled without generating employment, a waiter will be able to serve only a specific number of tables no matter how efficient he is. Thus as the population increases, service sector generates bulk of employment. With abundance also come a number of frivolous pursuits. In the west you can find people employed in leisure activities which would not make sense to inhabitant of a poor country – for example – paint ball or bowling.
While need based economy generally keeps on running irrespective of the financial health of the population, service based economy suffers when people start to cut down on their expenses. Also with every iota of new efficiency, new needs and frivolous pursuits need to be found to substitute for the jobs that are lost. Thus every technological advancement itself sows the seed of discontent and a future test of human ingenuity.
But what is point of this efficiency if it leads to misery. Efficiency has to be harnessed in a way that adds to the quality of human life.
For thousands of years man did not have an off day. Every day was a challenge for survival. He needed to hunt and feed himself and his dependents. But advent of farming gave him the efficiency and security that man could now think of taking a day off every week. And in last century five days work week became a norm. Not only that, vacations are generously distributed throughout the year. Off late, France has enforced a thirty five hour work week.
I believe the time has come when the work week needs to be reduced to four days. Or instead of a seven day week a six day week with 2 day weekend. Lets face it , most normal business can be done in four days instead of five, unless you are at the vanguard innovation and in a race against time.
The problem in the world today is that there is not enough things for people to do gainfully. Why then do we insist that some people work five days a week and some none at all. A four day work week could be the magic bullet. Like nectar from heaven it could cure the tribulation and soothe the spirit of a wounded world. It will create employment and possibly bring the world out of recession that has gripped the world for last five years.
With that note I sign off for a promising week long vacation!