The End of the Industrial Revolution Requires
An End to Industrial Thinking

 

Vic Napier
February 2012

The Industrial Revolution is coming to an end, and we had better get used to how much different life will be in the coming decades.  For some time we have known we are in a postindustrial world, but we cannot quite come to terms with what that means.  We talk about a knowledge economy or a service economy, but we are so wedded to the concepts of an industrial economy that we do not really know how to make a life in those kinds of economies.  We have trouble even understanding our new world because we think in terms more relevant to an economy based on manufacturing.

Take the concept of a job, for example.  When we think about jobs we think about going to a physical place distant from where we live, spending eight hours a day there for five days in a row, and getting money in return for our time.  That is the model we hold in our minds when we talk about creating jobs.  That model, however, is an artifact of the industrial economy – an economy that no longer exists.

We are living though a historical transition from industry to something else, but we are not sure what that something else is because we still think as if we are in an industrial economy.  We think in terms of trading time for money -- a concept that works only in an industrial economy. 

This kind of thinking grows out of a collective history built over several generations of people tending machines that never sleep and have no organic needs like food or water.  In order to serve the needs of machines our ancestors broke up the 24 hours of the day into three equal but unnatural eight-hour shifts.  Because it was the machines that produced value and not them, they traded their eight hours for a set amount of money instead of the value they might have generated in some other activity.  In other words, the value they might have contributed to the economy with their creativity and personal ability were put aside in favor of contributing to the operations of the machines.

It was probably a good trade for most people because the machines they served were so incredibly efficient.  They produced a vast amount of material wealth that spread throughout society and brought the greatest standard of living ever seen; by the end of the 20th century this wealth had spread throughout most of the world.  Although a few individuals lived lavishly, the benefits accrued to just about everyone.  The Industrial Age gave us better health, longer lives and even the poorest of us live with luxuries like refrigerators, hot water, indoor plumbing, television, and telephones.  Economic improvements came so suddenly during the two centuries of the Industrial Revolution that the average person could be fairly well assured that their children would have a better standard of living than they did.  Never before in human history had that kind of assured economic improvement occurred for so long.

But that is behind us now.  The Industrial Revolution has swept across the globe from Europe and the United States westward to Asia and is now on the doorstep of Africa.  Japan and Taiwan are shedding manufacturing and are now making the transition to a postindustrial economy; China is close behind.   

Instead of holding on to the vestiges of the industrial age we need to let go of old concepts and think about the kind of computerized and connected world we will leave to our children and grandchildren. 

Jobs are no longer activities divorced from our personal lives that we travel to every morning and leave behind in the afternoon.  The demarcation between our private lives and our work lives is becoming blurred, and will this will likely increase.  The concept of a “work life” and “private life” is an artifact of the era in which our ancestors served machines in eight-hour shifts.  The obsolescence of that concept is becoming increasingly clear as traditional employers comb through Facebook postings and demand tissue samples as a condition of employment.  However, traditional employers are an endangered species, and the convergence of our personal and vocational life means that the way we make our living will be more compatible with the basic values by which we live our lives.  We are entering an age in which we will serve the needs of others with our natural gifts, skills, and talents. 

Vic Napier