Break out of Frames
Martin Kimeldorf

Work, Education, and the Quality of Life: Reconsidering Some Twentieth Century Myths

By   Martin Kimeldorf  
Howard Kimeldorf  

This essay was first published in the International Journal of Career Management Volume 4, No 4. 1993, MCB University Press Limited. The MCB journal consortium awarded the authors the 1993 Award of Excellence from International Journal of Career Management.
© Copyright 1992. Martin and Howard Kimeldorf.


"High-technology" does not create a new society, it simply hastens the final scene in an historic workplace drama. The last act in this drama began over 100 years ago in the 19th century. Opening under the title "Scientific Management," this early form of industrial management de-humanized work by transferring control, skill, and creativity from the employee to the new "scientific managers" and their automated technologies. This left behind an alienated form of work completely stripped of it's human, creative face--filling the void with dumbed-down jobs.

Today, this trend surfaces in the service, clerical, and even managerial forms of work as desktop computers, phones and satellites, and robots re-shape our work--in non-human terms. And though some large corporations experiment with quality circles and other tentative first steps at re-humanizing the work place, we have a long way to go before the average employee can emerge, once again, as a craftsperson, involved in the design, production, and problem solving activities that make work truly human and creative.

As the century draws to a close, we find the dehumanizing workplace heading into a labor market cul de sac. A dead-ended society emerges with rich and poor increasingly polarized. This polarization produces a managerial, political, and technical elite who control and direct the economic, social and, ultimately, political fortunes of our society. This elite has the capacity to shape the lives of millions and millions of people beneath them--people locked into limited life styles, confined to limited opportunities of low-skilled, low-paid jobs. Some celebrate this as the triumph of the so-called "post-industrial service economy." But, ultimately it is the triumph of an elite-based technocracy over a popular, mass democracy.

The degradation of work gives rise to a new negativism. In almost every survey of the work place, employees comment about looking elsewhere to invest their talents, time, and fortunes. As columnist Ellen Goodman notes, "It's not the work ethic that has gone awry. It's the work, the overwork, the lack of respect and the deteriorating relationship between worker and work place. Until we deal with the people problem, this languishing economy can't fly. It can't even get off the ground." Worker alienation may again become vogue conversation in seminars, sociology classes, and business circles.

Most people grow up believing that their identity is defined by their job title--their work. But, when the work experience becomes so degraded many begin to ask, "Is this all there is?" This evokes a restlessness, encouraging many to search out rewarding alternatives in small business, new leisure involvement, or community service experience. People begin searching for meaningful forms of work--outside of the workplace. In essence, people are looking for an opportunity to engage their talents, searching for an activity which gives them a sense of control and purpose.

As a result, some will leave their high-tech keyboards to pursue calligraphy, those working in robotized environments might take up cabinetry with hand tools, while others working in large service bureaucracies may invest their time in community service or the arts. Voting with their hands, feet and head, growing numbers of people are trading their high-tech environments for the pleasures that come from low-tech activities.

"High-tech" is the culmination of the employer's historic search for cheap, replaceable, easily discarded forms of labor. As "smart machines" displace skilled and craft labor, left behind are cheaper forms of "dumb" labor--cheapening the quality of our work life. We are stuck with dumber, less satisfying jobs. High-tech simply accelerates the degradation or de-skilling of labor which began in an earlier era under scientific management and the assembly line. High-tech simply extends the assembly line into the service and clerical sectors while squeezing out the last vestige of skill from the remaining craft and semi-skilled industrial jobs.

Anthropologists long ago defined homo sapiens by their unique tool-using ability, or their ability to creatively solve problems in their work. We believe that this traditional definition of humans as the creative-worker species holds the key to meaningful workplace reform. It is precisely because today's workplace offers few opportunities to be creative, to be human, that we have experienced a subsequent decline in all phases of our living as: the declining quality of students' work at school; the increasing fragmentation of our communities, the decreasing family stability; and finally, the long term stagnation in our economy .

Rather than transfer our frustration to the traditional scapegoats like television, "foreigners," or public education; rather than fixating on today's exotic "high-tech" tools; rather than discussing ambiguous phenomenon like ethics and values; we look instead at the social forces driving our tool-based-culture into decline. We pose basic questions in order to pry loose the restraining myths and peer behind the business consultant's cliches, the bureaucrat's euphemisms, and the keynote speaker's traditional harangue about a "changing world." After discussing some long-term trends that deserve our attention, we conclude by speculating about some general alternative paths which could lead to more humanized work opportunities and new ways of living together in the 21st century...

Some of the questions we address in this paper are:

We explore these basic questions from different angles. We examine how the de-skilling of work effects families, schools, communities--our very species. Our discussion proceeds as follows:

Part I Today's Nightmare...Tomorrow's Vision
Part II The Myth Breakers
Part III The Historical Roots
Part IV Faulty Assumptions Supporting The Various Myths
Part V Families And Schools In The High-Tech Era
Part VI Alternatives


In the last few decades of the twentieth century, a disturbing human labor nightmare has become daily reality as good paying jobs are being replaced by unskilled, routine, low paying jobs. As a result, a minority of a nation's people grow richer while the vast majority grow dangerously poorer. At the community level, the aspiring members of the middle and working classes feel that they have been left behind--as indeed they have. At present, the richest one-half-of-one-percent of Americans control as much as one-third of their nation's total wealth, representing the highest concentration of economic resources since the dawn of corporate capitalism in the late nineteenth century. Conservative writer Kevin Phillips terms this rising economic elite a "new plutocracy." They have made out like bandits--the number of millionaires, for example, doubled over the past decade! The situation looks rather different form the other end of the social pyramid, where the poorest forty percent of Americans control only about fifteen percent of the total wealth. Similar patterns of economic polarization are sweeping the rest of the industrialized world.

A subtle, at times headline-exploding, shift is taking place as neighborhoods, communities, and nations fragment into special interest factions, ethnic and racial groups, or warring classes. The notion of a "common good" joins the fairy tale volume of bygone myths. In the process, the distinctions between third-world (undeveloped) nations and first-world (over-developed) nations begin to disappear as we enter the next century...

Any hope of reclaiming our democratic legacy depends on renewing our vision of citizen participation and community service. This renewed vision must focus on the creation of meaningful work and the equitable distribution of opportunity, income, and services. But to achieve this dream, we must transform core values and practices--while holding dear to those traditions that stress citizen participation. We can base a renewal of democracy upon a traditional community strength or ethic which expects the "common citizen" to contribute to "the common good."

But how likely is such a democratic renewal? In the U.S., where the ethic of citizen participation is still considered sacrosanct, a growing and pervasive apathy threatens to destroy the popular foundations of democratic life. In other industrialized countries with less developed traditions of citizen participation, renewal will be harder still. But the commitment to some form of citizen involvement, often lurking beneath populist rhetoric, remains a powerful, if unrealized force in most advanced countries. The question, then, is whether we can find creative ways to exploit the ethic of citizen participation.

Our task is to find the collective will for common vision of resisting the dangerous trend in the last quarter of this century which elevates special interest and individual privilege at the expense of the common good. This new vision can be funded out of a more equitable tax structure that re-distributes wealth so that everyone can benefit from a community's total labor power. Concurrent with any such re-distribution is the expectation that everyone will indeed contribute as fully as possible.

We cannot create a just society with equal opportunity by simply tinkering with small reforms like school re-structuring. Likewise, we must not confuse the birth of a new society with the invention of new technologies. Instead, our challenge is to initiate substantial and far-reaching changes. We need to focus on social and economic alternatives. We must write a new social compact which to guarantees useful work for all citizens in exchange for a decent standard of living, or a livable income. When this "occupational warranty" is provided, then people will be free to make contributions based on the talents they inherit and later develop through education and experience. With this kind of social transformation in place, then school reform can truly become a meaningful activity.

A new vision for living together cooperatively will also require a new definition of the word "work" or "labor." Our definition of useful labor needs to be expanded beyond a market place mentality that defines labor solely on the basis of it's ability to produce profits. Instead, the word "work" or "labor" must be broadened to include a variety of socially useful and necessary roles, including work performed by students in schools, parents in homes, volunteers in communities, and employees in private or government enterprises. By expanding the options for paid labor, we free the market to concentrate on what it does best: distributing goods and services. We no longer have to ask the market to achieve the impossible (and often contradictory) task of producing both good paying jobs and high profits.

With the definition of paid labor thus expanded, we increase the probability of fulfilling our commonly-held goals. For example, the American constitution envisions each citizen "in their pursuit of happiness." A society can pursue such a dream only when it actively creates and expands the collective opportunities for creative or meaningful human labor...labor, that is, defined in humanizing terms.

Myths Versus Visions Of A New Frontier

Unfortunately, the high-tech myth reigns as the supreme myth of our industrial age. Promising deliverance, the myth-makers hawk the utopian image of people employed at home in their "electronic cottages." At the same time, this high-tech workplace supposedly replaces unskilled occupations with creative, flexible, and highly skilled job titles.

The myth-makers have mistakenly assumed that the rationality and flexibility embedded in hardware and software design will carry over and create the same degree of rationality and flexibility in the work place. We often lose sight of the fact that the high-tech workplace is not only populated by hard drives, terminals and printers, but also by the humans who operate them. While we are willing to invest in information and work-sharing networks, we often seem unable to fund the most rudimentary "social support" networks for child, geriatric, and health care.

Social critics who do not succumb to this electronic cottage fairy tale, foresee a different future...a darker future. They prophesize not only a global warming; they also foresee the cooling down of our fluid melting-pot of opportunity. They warn that the cooperative social melting-pot of the past has become a social icebox with people frozen in an emerging underclass.

Instead of a society built upon a comfortable middle class lifestyle, larger numbers huddle in shelters and stand in line waiting for hand-outs from local food banks. At the other extreme, less-than-ennobling television programs celebrate the "lifestyles of the rich and famous," the elite and privileged class of technocrats and chief executive officers. Real families watch television's fictionalized families--where frivolity and humor resolve everyday problems--immediately following news reports about fragile families, homeless families, children in search of families, and AIDS or drug epidemics.

Just as the idealized family has disappeared, traditional communal bonds of democracy increasingly give way to the bureaucratic and conservative tendencies embedded in technocracy. Yesterday's harmony is replaced by increasing conflicts between old and young, rich and poor, white and non-white, well-educated and mis-educated, male and female, etc. Families eventually move from fragility to superficiality. Schools become more conservative, parochial, and custodial rather than exciting, dynamic, or stimulating places of learning.

In this moment of desperation, education becomes the whipping boy. We conveniently forget that education mirrors, rather than creates, social conditions--once again avoiding the hard questions. Instead, we focus on school re-structuring and other "soft" reforms. In a democracy addicted to monied lobbies and negative advertising, where sound-byte television and quick-read newspapers never search beneath the surface of the headlines, we have become accustomed to avoiding issues that demand our attention and effort.

Like the early immigrants, pioneers, and settlers, we must be willing to take risks in search of a new land of opportunities. But the next frontier will not to be discovered on so many acres of land waiting to be developed. The next frontier will not be found inside a computer chip, nor photographed from a satellite. The next frontier is entered through the mind and heart when people ask the question, "Is there a different way of working, sharing, and living?" Tomorrow's pioneers must investigate the challenging frontier of social and personal alternatives. The promise of the next frontier belongs to those willing to rethink and eventually reorganize their schools, markets, and work places.


The collapse of the high-tech myth is reported every day in the same newspapers and magazines that perpetuate it. In recent years newspapers, magazines and educational journals have equated literacy with computer literacy, giving rise to a new vocabulary with such words as "robotics" and "re-training." But these words hardly describe the new realities faced by today's workers.

Lordstown's Auto Workers Confront The Myth

In the early 1970s General Motors (GM) introduced robotics and speed-ups at its Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant. The first experiment was widely touted in Time and Newsweek. Eventually the Lordstown plant created foreboding new statistics...setting records not for production but for chronic absenteeism, massive turnover and product sabotage. As the metallic gleam of GM's robotic dream wore thin, personnel experts, psychologists, and consultants rushed to Lordstown, offering a plethora of exotic band-aids, from mundane profit sharing to worker rotation and quality circles. Finally, after a few drinks, one consultant from a nearby university zeroed in on the essential problem when he finally stated, "We've created too many dumb jobs."

The thought of deliberately creating such "dumb jobs"--of consciously making work and the people who perform it even dumber--seems both self-defeating and unnecessary. And yet, as a product of our century-long love affair with scientific managements, creating dumb jobs has become the raison d'etre of industrial engineers the world over. Most jobs, in fact, have been "dumbed down" to the point where a few days, or even a few hours, is all that is required to master the necessary skills. Under such circumstances, who wouldn't be bored, inattentive to quality, or routinely absent? Such personnel problems, as a U.S. government (HEW) report noted several years ago, reflects the growing stupidity of work, not the stupidity of the workers.

Ron Bricker Confronts The High-Tech Myth

Steelworker Ron Bricker's stocky, muscular body crumpled when they handed him his pink slip in the Pennsylvania mill where he had spent his adult life. He is a middle-aged man with a gleam in his eyes . . . up until now. He has a 3 bedroom house, 2 cars, and a teenage son who eats and eats and eats. Ron wondered what to do . . . . But Ron is a survivor and he quickly enrolls in a new high-tech training course.

Then President Ronald Reagan, proselytizer of high-tech, visited Ron Bricker's training center and, when he held a press conference, there, amidst the flashing strobes, Bricker approached the president with a resume. Caught off guard, the "damage control experts" found Bricker a computer repair job in a local Radio Shack store. After accepting the job from the president on national television, Ron Bricker eventually quit because he was earning $2.00 a week less than his unemployment benefits! Ron Bricker has been weaned from the milk and honey myth of high-tech...but at considerable personal cost.

Still, the myth refuses to die, at least in the minds of politicians and popular pundits. In the midst of the 1992 recession, while on a campaign swing through Southern California, Vice President Dan Quayle pointed to a "help wanted" sign in a local fast food chain and proudly announced "Our economic troubles are over." The restaurant manager, however, was not so sanguine, candidly reporting to the press that no one could expect to live on the wages he was paying.

The high priests of re-programmable life-styles (or worker re-training) speak glowingly of a new society. They display the sacred spreadsheets and charts beneath cameras and floodlights. One ascending graph shows engineers climbing from a mere 50,000 jobs in 1900 to 1.25 million by 1970. But the electronic-advocates fail to mention one of the most rapidly growing occupations: custodians and building maintenance workers, who must clean up the growing piles of computer printouts produced by our high-tech society. The image of a rising wave of custodians won't sell more computers to school districts; it won't attract people to business seminars.


De-humanizing jobs is not a new development. It is not the result of a new computer age. Rather, computers simply polish off a historical process begun with the birth of the modern Industrial Age.

The symptoms surrounding alienated or de-humanized labor were well known to the "Leonardo Da Vinci" of the assembly line: Henry Ford. As car manufacturing evolved from skilled to assembly-line labor it was difficult to find workers willing to make the switch. Ford complained about having to hire 340 new people in order to retain 100 workers on his assembly line. Today, a similar problem is spreading through the new "post-industrial" assembly lines employing clerical and service workers.

America's timeworn Horatio Alger myth (touting upward mobility, increasing opportunities, and expanding markets) crumbles and dissolves into Ron Bricker's nightmare of downward mobility. Today's Horatio Alger is a college graduate, waiting on tables at a yuppie restaurant in a land of shrinking opportunities. Our children inherit a gray landscape of stagnant markets no longer made in America (or England, Germany, or Australia). Those who are fluent in high-tech-speak and MBA-prose take the helm and pilot the manufacturing sector off to cheap third world labor camps--leaving behind a degraded mass of routine and low paying service sector jobs.

We look for deliverance in computer chips and computer-related jobs. Blinded by the high-tech myth, we see the technological trees but have missed the demographic forest. We have held the computer chip under a television spotlight, plastered it on magazines covers, and idolized it under a garish limelight. In the process we have failed to examine the larger issues it poses for industrial society. We have traded computer literacy for social illiteracy. We must now ask the vital question: How did we arrive at this juncture?

In The Beginning...Toolmaking

The story of humanity might very well begin, "Once upon a time a pre-human discovered how to use a tool to make a..." Scholars who study human evolution identify the creative act of toolmaking as a lever which catapulted our species out of the treetops and onto the plane of human development. Yet today the notion of humankind blissfully wed to toolmaking is difficult to imagine when so many feel victimized by alien technologies.

The high-tech-advocates speak of a future when humans and their machines will reach a symbiotic state. These myth-makers forget that this symbiosis is not new--it is our heritage! The priests of high-tech rarely discuss the process whereby creative labor was transformed into its contemporary form of alienated labor. Therefore, it is worth pausing to examine the origins of work, technology, and society. Perhaps in this process we will re-discover that long ago our everyday labors compelled us to be both skilled and creative.

Over two million years ago the Hominids emerged as a creative species, designing and using their own tools. Improved vision, erect posture, superior hand dexterity, and increased cranial capacity coincided with the first development of tools. As the species became more refined and more human-like, tools became more sophisticated. Meaningful reform or restructuring of tomorrow's work place rests on our ability to reclaim this heritage of creative labor.

The discovery and control of fire for heat, light and defense proved to be an enormously important first step. Controlled fire became the underlying technology supporting the development of steam power, metallurgy, and electricity. Indeed, the discovery of fire is so important that almost all cultures have a myth about it. Perhaps best known is the Greek myth which presents this idea in the story of Prometheus.

Prometheus was the creative, rebellious soul who liberated the power of fire. At first, the gods did not want to share fire with humans because they feared we might abuse it. When persuasion failed, Prometheus finally stole fire and gave it to humankind. When the gods discovered this, Prometheus was chained to a rock where each night a vulture came to pick at his flesh. The Promethean myth contains a profound question: Are we worthy of the tools we create? The gods may have the last laugh as we toy with radioactive fires today.

Human Verses Animal Labor

What, then, is the essence of human labor? How is it different from other forms of labor? Human labor is purposeful, informed and adaptive when compared to animal labor. The bee builds a marvelous hive, but it is built from instinct. While humans may build a simpler structure, we erect the structure first in our mind, drawing plans in the dirt, and then organizing materials and tools.

Our techniques are perfected through experimentation and preserved in our language and symbols, and later retained and passed on through the education of our young. Compared to animal labor, human labor is infinite and creative. Today the remnants of creative labor are embodied in such occupations as small business, arts, science, sports, and teaching. These occupations require creativity on many fronts.

Animal labor, in contrast, is yoked to instinct and repetition. Like machine labor, it is routine and requires little thought. Much contemporary industrial, clerical and service work is mind-numbingly repetitive and therefore closely resembles the animal form of labor. Our unique gift of creative and adaptive labor is reserved increasingly for fewer and fewer people. As a result, our species as a whole becomes less human and more animal-like in its daily labors. We reach a point where the worker feels human only away from work. What strange irony!

Today's reality stands in sharp contrast with the life of the early hunters and gatherers. The early tribes were communal in nature. They led a life where magic, religion, work, and art were an integral part of one's daily work. For example, a hunter might prepare a spear by decorating it with magic icons and singing a sacred chant. The decorated piece held magical or religious powers and appealed to the eye as well as to the soul. The risks and the fruits of the hunt were shared. Early human society was unified on many different levels.

Later in settlements and towns, work roles became more specialized. Communal labor was fragmented into different specialties like hunter, priest, trader, teacher, artisan, etc. These newly created "occupations" reflected new divisions within society itself as general membership in the group was superseded by membership in a particular class or caste.

Even within this new division of labor and society, the new occupational roles still retained much creativity. The person laboring in the field or the artisan working in the craft guild was responsible for organizing his or her labor. Workers still had power over the vital decisions affecting their tasks. For example, artisans designed the tools and final product, ordered supplies, hired helpers, transacted business, and organized the delivery. Likewise, early metal craft workers performed a variety of tasks in the metalworking guilds, requiring skills in forging, machining, design and toolmaking.

The Rise Of Fragmented Labor

The industrial era swept away all traces of cooperative work and life. Early 19th Century factories were primitive and despotic, often associated with poorhouses, prisons or orphanages. A rancorous cry welled up, directed against such abusive and intolerable conditions. At about the same time (in the 1870s) a man named Frederick Taylor suggested an alternate direction for industry. Taylor promised owners that they could use "scientific management" instead of the whip in their quest for greater and greater output.

He proposed improving production by changing the very nature of work itself. This new form of organization, called "scientific management," brought the process of production under the supervision and control of industrial engineers. Instead of the artisan directing his or her own labors, engineers and supervisors took over this responsibility. Each engineer was now responsible for a part of the task and all tasks were organized into separate departments. Bureaucratic control replaced individual control. With greater control over the labor process, owners could raise the rate of profit and productivity by introducing new machines, lowering wages, speeding up work, or reorganizing production itself.

Taylor argued that the "captains of industry" had to do more than simply own the means of production. They also had to organize production differently. Taylor admonished owners to go down to the shop floor and learn the craft. After mastering the techniques, owners were next instructed to analyze various jobs and break them down into simpler steps. These new simpler steps were organized in a "more rational form of production." In this way, Taylor argued, owners would eventually come to own and organize not just the means of production but the very act of work itself.

The progressive application of this method on a mass scale eventually destroyed the guild and crafts, replacing them with a sequential manufacturing process known as the assembly line. Skilled artisans who once performed many different tasks, were replaced by lower paid factory workers, each performing a single task. The fragmentation of jobs led to fragmentary knowledge of the work being performed.

The mechanic, for example, saw his entire job disappear. Design was now done by a Planning Department. Tool departments ordered and coordinated the flow of materials. Formerly, the guild and craftsman had an autonomous, contractual relationship with the owner, regularly organizing their own labor and hiring subordinates. Now the craftsperson was replaced by an hourly wage earner.

Work came under near-total control of management, who dictated the sequence, speed and method of work. Scientific management paved the way for the dehumanization of work. We no longer organized production around human and laboring needs. Scientific managers East and West knelt before new gods: "productivity" under capitalism and "efficiency" in the socialist countries.

Taylor worked hard to prove that his new theory was viable. Like Henry Ford he had a difficult time finding workers who were eager to give up their control over the work process. Taylor had to fire at least three gangs of workers before he could find one willing to go along with his new system of management.

Taylor's work had only just begun! He used a stopwatch to calculate and measure every minute task. He sought control over all forms of work, viewing human labor in increasingly fragmented, machine-like terms. Taylor was not interested in observing the entire process of mind and body working together. Instead, he concentrated on the small, fragmented parts, measuring and reducing each job to simple physical efforts like grasping, releasing, swivelling, bending, etc.

In the process, the mental task of conceptualizing work was divorced from the manual task of executing it. Mental or conceptual work was sent upstairs to mid-management. The original unity of labor was finally dissolved in the acid of specialization, or what could be called the detailed division of labor. Our challenge for the future is to find alternative ways to organize work so that we can reclaim the original integrated and fully human qualities of cooperative work.

Robotics And The De-Skilling Of Labor

Contemporary robotics merely represents the final stage in the de-skilling of labor. Robotics compresses sprawling assembly lines of alienated workers into a smaller space, with fewer people producing more goods in less space. Instead of a line of dedicated spot welders each performing a separate task, General Motors relies on a single programmable machine, thus greatly reducing the costs and uncertainties of relying on human labor. Stories are told of bread factories where a human hand is never involved in the baking. Human labor is only involved in loading flour sacks at one end and removing loaves of bread at the other. A few remaining jobs require some skill, but most command a lower wage because the work is simpler. Automated plants tend to replace skilled machinists with machine-tenders. Contrary once again to the high-tech myth, robotics creates a demand for fewer workers with less skill.

Peter Drucker a vigorous advocate entrepreneurial management; does not regard high-tech as a growth industry when compared to many of the more traditional businesses. The long awaited "demand" for high-tech computer jobs never reached the elevated expectations of many experts. Nor can high-tech be counted on to create much demand for repair technicians. Many robots, for example, are capable of self-monitoring and sometimes do their own troubleshooting. Robots are built for reliability and quick repair. In mainframe computers technicians are taught to repair modules rather than repairing components. In the end, the computer technician trades in his or her detailed knowledge of the parts and circuit boards in order to become a board swapper. Is it any wonder that Ron Bricker's labor as a computer repairman is worth $2.00 less than his unemployment check?

In a pioneering study of industrial technology entitled The Employment Impact of Technological Change James R. Bright noted an interesting trend. The report, issued as part of a study commissioned by the United States National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress, found that as machines were increasingly endowed with intelligence, employers demanded less intelligence from the humans charged with operating them.

Dr. Bright presented finding on a graph, with the vertical axis measuring job skills in terms of dexterity, education, physical effort, experience, decision making, etc. On the horizontal axis he then plotted the normal sequential range of mechanization from least to most highly automated (from manual labor to robotics). As the chart reveals, skills needed at work initially rise as the mode of manufacturing shifts from manual to skilled machine labor. A journeyman machinist is an example of this skilled labor. However, the trend reverses itself with the move from skilled-mechanized labor toward more automated forms of work.

Symbolic Graph Representing Bright's Findings. As labor becomes mechanized, the demand for skills in the workplace increases.
Then, as labor becomes automated, the demand increased.
As labor becomes mechanized, the demand for skills in the work place increases.
Then, as labor becomes automated, the demand decreases.

As we enter the brave new world of high-tech, the words of Aldous Huxley seem hauntingly prophetic
". . . Handicraft people in the past used simple tools to create complex items . . . Today with foolproof equipment and complex machines, the laborer's relationship to the process is removed, leaving him with stupidity and inability . . . Foolproof systems lead to spontaneity proof, imagination proof, and even skillproof . . . "


Several assumptions underpin our high-tech mythology. Many of them have been around so long that the truth is difficult to find. Faulty assumptions are routinely made about the nature of work performed in factories and on farms, the actual skill needed to perform work in industrial and office settings, the fact that modern society has somehow matured "beyond" industrial society to a post-industrial form--all culminating in the latest fads of computer and workplace literacy.

The Skilled Labor Assumption

The major assumption underlying the High-tech myth argues that as our technology is upgraded, presumably becoming more sophisticated and automated, there is a corresponding rise in skill requirements. Therefore, it is asserted, new technology will create a large number of skilled jobs. Consequently, the overall average skill required in the work force will also rise. But the arithmetical process of averaging is confused here with the reality of polarizing.

A close look at the kind of jobs that are created by technology suggests a more complex picture. Rather than an across-the-board rise in skill, we find labor markets becoming more polarized than before. It begins with a trickle "upwards" of a few more technical jobs, while the bottom of the labor market is flooded by a wave of unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. What you see, in others words, depends on where you stand and where you look.

Looking at the machinist trade in detail shows how the growing reliance on automated technologies results in a reduced demand for highly skilled workers. In the 1960s Numerically Controlled Machining made an entrance into many tool and die departments. Workers were hired to operate a single machine such as a lathe, mill or grinder that was driven by a computer tape program. Each operative generally performed from one to eight tasks on a single work piece. Machine operators were handed simple "operation sheets" rather than blueprints. At one end workers dumped in cold steel and coded paper tape. At the other end they picked up finished products. This hardly compares to the work once performed by journeyman machinists who operated several pieces of equipment, performing a multitude of operations while following a total blueprint.

In the process, the machining trade was dismantled and broken down into fragments. The journeyman machinist was eventually replaced by a new worker called a machine operator or tender. A smaller wage accompanied the new job title. This made it increasingly cost effective to hire women machinists since the work had become routine and lower paid. As a result, women entered the formerly high paying non-traditional machine trades in increasing numbers at a time when the work was becoming de-skilled and down-waged.

Harry Braverman, author of what is arguable the most provocative analysis of work to appear in many years, noes there is considerable confusion over the terms skilled and unskilled . Braverman claims that the confusion began in the 1930s when "skilled labor" was re-defined by economists like Harry James who, while working for the National Bureau of Economic Resources, incorrectly concluded that, "increasing mechanization of the work place will lead to a demand for more skilled workers." James and others confused the skills used by engineers in designing the technology with the skills used by those who were consigned to operate the newly automated machines. By changing definitions and assigning the word "skill" to any worker coming in contact with technology, large numbers of people moved from the column labelled un-skilled to the column titled skilled.

Erroneous Assumptions About Rural And Urban Labor

At the same time, another set of faulty assumptions created a myth about the superiority of urban labor. It was widely believed that the transformation from agricultural to industrial labor produced a more skilled work force. This mis-begotten theory also began in the 1930s when labor market experts incorrectly identified farm labor as unskilled.

But farmers who gave up a precarious existence to join the higher paid assembly line workers rarely became more skilled in the process. The industrial worker usually performs tasks that are described by the US Occupational Outlook Handbook as "consisting of brief, on the job training where the worker is told what and how to perform the task." This definition of semi or unskilled labor pales before the more challenging work a farmer typically performed. Farm work required many more skills such as:

As an earlier generation traded in its soil-dusted overalls for blue collar uniforms, they left behind a highly creative work life for a semi-skilled, tedious, high paying factory job. The migration to the city was a journey ending in de-skilled work lives. Today, many displaced industrial workers continue this crippling journey with growing armies of industrial workers leaving behind high paid, semi-skilled jobs to enter the ranks of custodians, food service workers, retail, and delivery persons. What can the business-education experts be thinking when they insist that we need more skilled workers? Where are their charts depicting the rising numbers of custodians? Just ask Ron Bricker what happens to trainees in this brave new world of work.

The Computer Literacy Assumption

Incredibly, the hype continues unabated. Television commercials hawk computers like hot rods, urging us to buy the best if we hope to compete in the fast lane. Education brochures include pictures of computer banks--don't worry about the content or what happens to graduates--the cathode ray screen is everything! At an education conference, a special educator shows a young man assembling plastic parts for an oscilloscope and claims that this handicapped person is now performing skilled work instead of just making pot holders in a sheltered workshop.

It's the same old technology-snake-oil. Assembling small plastic parts for an oscilloscope is no different than assembling pot holders In fact, pot holders--because of the different materials involved--may actually require more skill. The data entry clerks transferring endless bits of data into "smart terminals" more closely resembles assembly line data-workers rather than knowledge-workers.

High-tech seers point to the fact that by the mid-1990s over 65% of the work places in the United States will use computers on site. But proximity to a computer in no way implies mastery of it. Recall the promise of computers becoming "user friendly"--merely another euphemism for saying machines are designed for the computer ignorant. As a result, workers express the sense of working for the computer rather than with it.

Post-Industrial Service Economy Assumptions

Another late 20th century myth depicts the superiority of a post-industrial service economy. This inflated term suggests that we have somehow matured beyond industrial forms of society. But we have not so much left industry behind; rather industry has left our shores for the third world--in search of even greater profits--under the euphemistic banner of "global economy!" It is perhaps more accurate to describe developed countries like the United States, not with words like "post" industrial society but rather "moribund" industrial society. The latter terms depict a so-called "advanced" society littered with food banks, shelters for the homeless, and increasing numbers of children growing up in poverty.

The image of post-industrial service economy is supposed to conjure up the vision of a "service economy and community" peopled with white collar service providers working out of their homes or professional offices. The associated job titles certainly sound service-oriented: CAD engineer, curriculum specialist, network specialist, administrator, physician's assistant, genetic counselor, electronics technician, etc. But these more attractive titles comprise from 3-5% of the total work force. More typical of jobs titles in the new service economy are custodian, day care aid, fry cook, teacher's aid, house cleaning technician, driver, orderly, sales person, data entry clerk, and other less glamorous jobs.

It may be comforting to think that this process of de-skilling jobs is concentrated in industrial regions populated by ancient forests of smoke-stacks. But the trends apply to even the most skilled occupations. De-skilling is happening in teaching, nursing, and architecture, where the trend is to supplant professionals with paraprofessionals. Hospital management transfers doctoring duties to physician's assistants; nurse aides monitor vital signs with computerized blood pressure machines, electronic thermometers, and vital sign probes. Satellite communications entrepreneurs envision tele-commuting students learning from master teachers via interactive video. After the lesson is over students fax their homework to a central educational warehouse where an army of "instructional assistants" grade papers. We can update a school yard chant with the following rhyme: "No more teachers, no more we've all got satellite hooks."

The Office And Clerical Assembly Line

Similar changes have invaded the office place. In 1870 the office force was a small and highly paid enclave, exclusively reserved for well connected males. Clerking involved a variety of tasks from bookkeeping to sales to advising. By 1970 office jobs had become a mass occupation, almost exclusively female and low paying. Like industrial labor, the work was broken into routine and repetitive tasks and re-organized into departments of accounting, sales, correspondence, typing pools, etc. It had become its mirror opposite under the grinding force of "scientific management."

As manufacturing employed less and less human labor, more and more work was shifted to the office paper mill. Finished products had to be marketed, tracked, accounted for, and sold, which called forth a new army of white collar workers. Office employees would soon find themselves working on a paper assembly line. Much like the nineteenth-century factory, time-motion-study experts entered the expanded offices with their stopwatches and cameras. Their trivial notion of labor revealed that an efficient person could open a file drawer in .04 seconds and swivel in a chair in .009 seconds. Instead of the grasp and release of metal in factories, it was the grasp and release of data or paper in the nine-to-five work place. Similar to industry, office work became more routine, lower paid, and less skilled. Office work could now be described with terms like clipping, pasting, copying, collating, filing, adding, and phone answering instead of advising, accounting, or writing.

Even more specialized occupations like writing and publishing gradually succumb. The aesthetic, intellectual, and physical skills belonging to the printing trades once included designing lay outs, setting type, pasting up galleys, and photo-processing. Now these tasks and tools are programed into in a combined hardware and software entity called desktop publishing. The paste-up artist, printer, and typographer are now replaced by an author or secretary and an entry level copy machine operator. Again we see a pattern of concentrating skills and high pay in a few hands, while sending the majority off empty-handed to low skill, low paying jobs.

High priests of the programmable wax eloquently of the future office with new jargon like "tele-commuting" or "electronic cottages." Supposedly there is no need to work in an office because our labor can now be performed at home on a personal computer. However, the real implications of abolishing a centralized work place are more ominous, since it allows the bulk of the non-administrative work force to be warehoused in the low rent district, while a smaller piece of luxury real estate houses managers uptown. The office worker of the future will be connected uptown by satellite, fax, modem, fiber optics, or microwave.

This is not the future. It is happening right now in the large AT&T phone operation warehouses. Operators work in front of blinking lights while a computer in the back room sends supervisors a regular printout listing the average calls per minute, average wait time, errors and the like. The electronic chip has not created better working conditions;: but has simply become the electronic supervisor, with an electronic mail address.

The increased stress at one AT&T "factory" resulted in the company doctor placing aspirin in a dispenser by the water fountain. In a Pennsylvania phone company one-fourth of the workers quit from stress-related disabilities. Only recently has that industry admitted the unhealthy effects of constant keyboard work and computer screen radiation. Suddenly a new post-industrial health-inspector position is needed to monitor "ergonomics" and other injuries resulting from the office computer assembly lines.

Finally, in San Jose, California (capital of silicon chip culture) the local paper reported one-third of the work force used alcohol or drugs while on the computer manufacturing assembly line--hardly the vision of a work force challenged to use more of its skills!

The 1990s Fad...Workplace Literacy

In the 1990s the "high-tech" myth and the faulty definition of skilled labor has been reborn with the title "work place literacy." Educators have joined business consultants and social apologists in decrying our eroding "standard of living" as indicated by declines in the "average weekly earnings." They wring their hands over the triumph of Taylorism* or "scientific management" but then brush it aside by claiming that this form of management is old fashioned and disappearing. While Taylorism may be old fashioned, it remains the norm in today's workplace. True, attempts have been made to get beyond scientific management, but such highly-celebrated cases are the exception and not the rule.

The new trend-setter's motive become clear when you listen to their agenda for change. In the 1990 executive summary for the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, the authors suggest creating new educational standard to insure that students leave school with functional literacy and workplace skills. They propose the creation of specific learner competencies and new vocational training programs. Of course, the authors, consultants, and trainers stand ready to receive the new funding needed to help us develop these new competencies.

Their basic line of reasoning boils down to a rather simple aphorism: "Leaving our workers unskilled dooms them to lower wages...But, raising their skill level creates people who command a higher wage." No one will argue that people with more skills--more human capital--should command higher wages. However, many educational reformers seem to forget that workers neither create jobs nor set wages--business and government do. The decision to dumb-down jobs was not made by workers, it was made by management seeking to maximize profits by hiring cheaper labor.

Perhaps this confusion stems from the fact that most advocates of workplace literacy are themselves work-illiterate. Few consultants have ever worked on a factory or clerical assembly line. They may not even know of the Ron Brickers who enroll in so-called electronic "technicians" courses only to find that they have graduated to become board swappers at a wage lower than unemployment benefits!

The fallacious thinking behind the workplace literacy movement blatantly screams out in the title of their summary "America's Choice: high skill or low wage." Which America are they talking about? And who is choosing? Are we to assume that it was the typist's choice to have productivity measured by counting the number of word processing keystrokes per hour? Was it the teenagers at McDonalds who said, "No, don't teach me how to use a cash register, give me a dummy machine with buttons to press." It was clearly the choice of managers and owners to measure a typists' output like an assembly line worker in keystrokes per minute. It was McDonalds' choice to degrade the skill content of cashiers in order to keep the job unskilled, cheap, and disposable. Now it is America's dilemma!

How can we encourage the masses of Americans--along with citizens of other industrial nations--to become life-long learners when most of the job openings depend on so few skills? In their own executive summary the consultants write "Most employers interviewed do not expect their skill requirements to change. Despite the widespread presumption that advancing technology and evolving service will create jobs demanding higher skills, only five percent of the employers were concerned with a skills shortage." Do they read their own mythology?

Why do these learned consultants fail to grasp the most basic reality? Perhaps we should ask them to spend eight hours with the typists and fast food workers they write about, instead of brainstorming at retreats and conferences. Their unfounded conclusions about work and education mask a more dangerous agenda, which only later emerges in a discussion about the demographics of the future workforce. In the monograph Workplace Basics: Skills Employers Want they observe that:

"...the group of 16 to 24 years olds that is the traditional source of new workers is shrinking, and employers will have to reach into the ranks of the less qualified to get their entry-level workforce. That means that an increasing number of entry-level workers will come from groups where historically human resource investments have been deficient."

It does not take a labor market genius to read between the lines. These authors representing the US Department of Labor and The American Society for Training and Development are really speaking to the problems of finding cheap reliable labor. They articulate a fear that is rarely spoken openly: American business, like its counterparts elsewhere, can no longer find enough workers willing to fill minimum wage, minimum skill jobs. Rather than raise the minimum wage to attract people with more skills and experience, workplace literacy reformers hope to incorporate low-wage youths from inner cities, migrant farm culture, and new immigrants. While it is admirable to invest in such disadvantaged groups, preparing them as replacements for the aging workforce of the 1960s can only backfire. Likewise, telling youth in general that skills create high paying jobs will result in anger born of rising expectations that cannot be met.


Two key institutions--schools and families--have fallen prey to the ugly realities of the high-tech era. Ironically, we seem to expect more of both institutions at a time when the work place demands less. How work places and families reflect this contradiction is both fascinating and tragic.

The Changed Family...The Lesser Family

The family was once a center for creative, unifying labors. Families represented miniature, self-contained communities, making their own food and clothes, doing their own repairs and housework. Families once provided entertainment, religion and succor for young and old alike.. Today in a moribund industrial society it takes two paychecks (two wage earners) just to achieve economic stability. In the end, the two paycheck family is forced to trade social values for material ones. Many adults must sacrifice parental responsibilities for occupational/income responsibilities. The result is smaller, busier families, whose members often draw their identity more from the names of the products they consume and the places they work than from their common last name.

We purchase a growing number of services like housework, laundry services, repair work, and care services. Young and old are segregated in day care and geriatric homes. One can purchase love or its drug substitute. In our age of manufactured social functions, a family's nurturing services can be purchased in the form of self-help diets, exercise classes, single parent support groups, child and elder care centers, etc. The once self-supporting family unit now purchases what it no longer has time to provide itself. As collective family roles shrink, consumer roles rush in to fill the void.

We have traded the role of creative toolmaker and user for the reduced role of semi-skilled worker and all-purpose consumer. The term "service economy" obscures the fact that the nuclear family has been destroyed and replaced by a universal market. Perhaps future family comedies will portray catalogue-advertised fathers and test-tube mothers singing about love in a petri dish.

Less Skills, Less Positions, Less Education

Workplace trends carry over into our schools. Beneath the traditional myth that a good education equals a good job, an unofficial message resonates in the student's ears: "Tomorrow's job won't pay much and won't demand much." Is it any wonder that students begin to devalue the rigors of education? As work is devalued the promise of education slips into a haze.

Secretaries in the near future will need fewer spelling and grammar skills because their desktop terminal will come equipped with a grammar checker, dictionary, and thesaurus on laser disks. Cashiers no longer need to worry about prices because laser scanners read prices and do inventory all at the same time. Filing, alphabetizing, and coding once required of operators, warehouse workers and office workers can now be done by machine. Auto mechanics forget their diagnostic skills and hook up a computer probe to the engine's control chip. A reporter is sent to cover the unveiling of a highly automated Boeing 757 airplane, and he ends up flying the machine by pressing buttons and pulling levels according to computer prompts. A bell signals the seventeen year old fry cook when the hamburger needs to be turned over...The story is familiar and widespread.

We can stop lamenting the fact that Johnny and Susie cannot read. Why should they? Where are their academic skills going to be used? Teachers suggesting that "back to basics will lead to future opportunities" appear sadly out of touch. Kids look at the jobs, the pay, and the duties--and wonder if the teacher ever worked outside the schoolhouse.

A large New York City bank undertook a study of job satisfaction. They found an inverse relation between the level of education and satisfaction. Diplomas have become not a symbol of skill and competence but rather a measure of an individual's potential to be disciplined. Employers do not want over-educated workers dreaming dreams that cannot be realized. Early in the computerization of the banking industry, the American Management Association summed it up in cold and blunt terms:
" be honest we don't want people to take data processing jobs as a stepping stone to other jobs. We want permanent employees capable of doing a good job and satisfied to do it. To promise rapid advancement is to falsify the facts. The only rapid advancement for the bulk of non-supervisory staff is out of data processing...(Braverman)"
We graduate students who have stayed longer in school than previous generations, in part because there is no other place for them. Family members do not have time because they are too busy earning money to buy necessary products and services. And single parents are simply too busy--period! As the scientific-technical revolution spreads, our quality of life seems to slip slowly away.

Like so many others today, educators stand at a crossroad. Schools, having rushed to embrace "high-tech," link the latest fad about skilled labor--workplace literacy--to survival in the world of work. But most students no longer buy the notion that a good education will guarantee them a good job, much less a secure livelihood.

Educators must search their souls. They must review their role in preserving and improving culture. Educators and the public in general must ask and examine tough questions like:

While toying with computer or workplace literacy we may be failing ourselves. We have become blind to the realities of the work place, deaf to the crying need for creative human labor, speechless before the mythical initials of IBM. Our infatuation with technology has left us as cultural illiterates with a reality-learning disability. Educational reformers rushed in to fill a cultural and social void, only to find they they are now being accused of causing the void itself.

By itself, educational reform is just too small a tool. It cannot bring back the good old days and it fails to address the much larger issues shaping our future. Educational reform can become a valued partner in societal reform, but it is no substitute for meaningful, in-depth, planned, visionary change. Workplace re-structuring is a far more effective place to begin.


The alternatives alluded to so far require sweeping change at all levels: school, family, neighborhoods, community, workplaces, economic and foreign policies. What, if anything, can we do in the present? While educational reforms alone will not change the economics and politics of the workplace, we can use schools to help our citizens reclaim their talents and skills. Simultaneously, we can work on legislation to promote a basic re-structuring of the workplace. In essense we need to explore the possibility of a new social compact.

Riane Eisler envisions a new social compact, a new partnership in her book The Chalice And The Blade. She outlines a possible new economic order as follows:
At the heart of the new economic order will be the replacement of the presently failing "dual economy."...Instead, we can expect that the non-monetized "informal" economy--of household production and maintenance, parenting, volunteer community service , and all the cooperative activities that permit the now "over-rewarded competitive activities to appear successful"--will be appropriately valued and rewarded. This will provide the now-missing basis for an economic system in which caring for others is not just given lip service but is the most highly rewarded, and therefore most highly valued human activity. (p. 202).

Eisler and others envision a renewed society which brings us back to the Greecian and Cretian ideal of a democratic city-state where citizens are encouraged to actively participate in the politics, commerce, and social life of their community. Some possible alternatives that might bring us closer to this ideal are discussed next.

Expanding The Definition Of Work

Clearly, most individuals are happiest when they discover their talents and find an outlet for them. But the labor market is incapable of turning out enough jobs that both challenge and reward us. This is where schools and families can begin to play an important role. If both school and family-child raising types of work were elevated to the importance of paid work in the private sector, then we might begin to develop creative work alternatives. Imagine what would happen when child caring or after school caring became a focus of community investment. It can be done when we begin to re-define our concept of paid work. Any new definition of paid or rewarded work for the next century must include both school and family work experiences.

What we are proposing is far from radical, given that many employers already recognize that skills learned at home or at school can be directly transferred to their work site. We can reward work in a variety of ways including:

Programs designed to link older and younger volunteers might go a long way toward re-connecting generations, at the same time helping to fill gaps in our human service systems. People involved in innovative youth-community-service projects report benefits to both the giver and recipient of such services. Student volunteers renew their interest in learning when they link what they know with what their communities need. It turns needy students into needed citizens--part of a process that may help us to value our youth as a resource, rather than view them as a problem

It is time to explore, brainstorm, and experiment with alternatives to the current methods for distributing income, organizing work, educating people, and supporting families. A. G. Watts, in his provocative essay Beyond Unemployment? Schools And The Future Of Work, suggests that income might be distributed in a fashion unrelated to work. Watts points out that we cannot continue to demand that the market distribute both goods and income. He claims it is a contradictory and therefore impossible function. Let schools and community institutions organize the socially necessary work of learning, family support, or community service. This work could then be supported with income, vouchers, or stipends.

If we are ever to regain our human qualities then we must free income from dependence on the labor market. Income, or income alternatives, could then be used to support socially valuable roles like parenting, elder-care, community service, student or study work, and small scale business or entrepreneurship. Each has a direct, positive benefit for local communities, and collectively could strengthen a nation. Everyone would have a guaranteed minimum income or support system.

On top of this guaranteed minimum income or support system, individuals could earn more depending on the value of their particular contribution. For example, a person with more education and experience would typically provide society with a higher quality of work and would thus be compensated accordingly. This simple formula for reforming wage-and-compensation policy could correct the obscene imbalances we no experience where Chief Executive Officers earn millions and billions of dollars while millions and millions of citizens earn hardly enough to live on.

The Education Reform Agenda

School reform must return in part to its original mission of humanizing and preparing the young to become fully contributing members of the community. This purpose cannot be measured in standardized scores that attempt to standardize learning outcomes like so many credits or debits on a ledger sheet. Schools should not mimic businesses because education is not about mass producing students for a bottom-line audience. Education is about nurturing and preparing the young for survival in the untamed future. This survival will depend on a well-rounded education. The student's subsequent growth and maturity will not always be demonstrated immediately, easily measured, nor lend itself to comparison and competition.

Educational reform must address the impersonal nature of our "industrialized" schools. Learning environments must be scaled down in size so that learning can be made more personal and flexible. We need to regularly examine our core curriculum to insure that we strive to help each student become a self-directed learner and contributing citizen. While general core skills will need to be constantly re-examined, necessary survival skills can probably fit into general disciplines with names like:

If we are to avoid creating a society divided by class conflict then we must avoid creating schools with mutually exclusive track systems for the college bound, job site bound, and special needs student. Schools in a democratic society must encourage maximum interaction between people of different backgrounds and abilities. At times, certain subjects or learners may require grouping by ability. But these experiences must be accompanied by other opportunities for working and learning together regardless of ability or aptitude. Such cooperative experiences can be easily infused into instruction in the arts, career, citizenship-service, and recreation-leisure disciplines.

This expanded vision of education can also bring some stability to the profession of teaching. We must resist slavishly following the latest educational fad, particularly if it results in throwing out all previous methods and techniques in favor of the most recent innovation. We must learn to conserve. Students will need to experience learning from a variety of formats and curriculums whether lecture, experiential, textbook, unstructured, cooperative, or competitive modes. Students who learn in that fashion will become citizens who survive and even thrive in an untamed future.

Tomorrow's curriculum essentially covers the art of learning and living. The new education not only helps students develop their gifts, it also expects a contribution in return. It provides more freedom to learn and, in return, expects greater responsibility from students. It sees students as not only consumers of services but calls upon them to also provide services to their local community, to link education with local needs. It is the first step in a long over-due educational reform, where change is linked to social and workplace reform.

Re-structuring The Workplace

Workplace reforms are an essential precondition for more sweeping social changes. Unlike educational reforms, re-structuring the work place requires reversing long-term, historic trends. Consequently, the following suggestions are more speculative. We can look to what some countries have accomplished as springboards for inventing our own solutions to stop the loss of skilled jobs, increase the connection between school, community and work; and insure that everyone pays their fair share for the cost of re-structuring the workplace.

Sweden, a world leader in so many areas, is also on the cutting edge of workplace reform. Backed by a highly organized and politically powerful labor movement, Swedish industry has been substantially reorganized since the 1960s. Volvo, in particular, has set the pace with its visionary assault on the assembly line. Rejecting the conventional wisdom of "scientific management," Volvo builds its highly-regarded vehicles with self-directed autonomous work teams, each of which divides tasks among its members who then collectively assemble a major part of each automobile.

Thus, instead of each worker performing the same repetitive, simplified operation again and again, Swedish employees work as a team, rotating and sharing tasks. This requires a larger understanding of how their individual labors contribute to the finished product. It is a system of "complexified" production, where the dignity of labor and the challenge of work promotes job satisfaction along with product quality second to none. Non-alienating and economically viable, Volvo is living proof that workable alternatives exist to the "dumb jobs" syndrome.

Another alternative might be found in the "Italian model," which emphasizes flexibility in production methods. In consumer-oriented markets like clothing and electronics, small scale entrepreneurs clustered in Northern Italy are constructing highly flexible and specialized production processes. This allows manufacturers to make more rapid change overs in styling and design in accord with fast-changing consumer tastes.

Being able to incorporate the latest innovation gives Italy's entrepreneurs a clear edge over their more sluggish competition, still tied to mass production techniques. At the same time, by breaking the deadening effects of the assembly line, workers in Italy's clothing and electronics firms gain greater control and mastery over their work. Like the Swedish autoworkers, they rotate duties, perform more complex tasks and generally have a greater say over their job.

Similar examples of job "enlargement" and autonomous small group activity can be found in other countries. Most, however, have been limited to particular industries or regions. To translated these isolated, alternative forms of work into national policy will require each country to formulate long-term agendas of industrial and social planning, where priorities can be rationally set and supported by national governments--which itself must undergo similar re-structuring. That, of course, is a bigger and daunting task. Yet, as economist Robert Reich argues, the challenge of formulating national industrial policy is essential if advanced societies are to remain both competitive and compassionate.

The Vanishing Frontier

At the turn of the 19th century, Frederick Jackson Turner postulated the "frontier thesis," which was triggered by the U.S. government's proclamation announcing the close of the American frontier. Turner and others had seen the frontier as the lifeblood of a pioneering nation and culture. He and others predicted that it would be difficult for a pioneering and expansionary society to adapt to the limits imposed by closing the frontier. It meant that Americans would lose their "gate of escape from the bondage of the past," according to historian William Appleman Williams.

William explored this theme in The Great Evasion, where he cautions us about a frontier spirit that fosters escapism rather than responsibility. His warning of 30 years ago proves remarkably insightful when set beside the realities of the today. Williams presciently wrote:

"...the subtle process which shifted the image of a frontier from the continent to an overseas economic empire will transfer itself once again, this time to space itself, and the evasion will become literally projected to infinity....extreme achievements of and within American society are not only matched by extremes of failure, deprivation, and alienation within society, but that there is no meaningful and consequential dialogue between the extremes (1965)."

Williams contended that the most meaningful frontier is yet to be explored. This new frontier is not a place to settle but rather a challenge to build a new community dedicated to equal justice and democracy. Citizens of the new frontier move beyond the badlands of special interest and the politics of selfishness. They occupy a higher common ground where no one group dominates as a majority. Instead, they try to fashion a collective vision while allowing for diversity and divergent views. Tomorrow's pioneers must learn the art of compromising for the the good of all.

Williams calls for new pioneers, capable of moving away from egoism, away from self-interest, away from ruthless competition. He argues for a new pioneer spirit that explores the possibilities for a humane, sharing, and caring community. It is the Bill of Rights re-visited, where majorities rule without exploiting or conquering a weaker minority. This frontier landscape asks us to become tolerant, compassionate.

Williams' vision bears remarkable similarity to the Judeo-Christian ideal. This vision describes a community of people practicing an ancient ethic: I am my brothers' and my sisters' keeper. It is a community unafraid to distribute resources to those in need, while demanding contributions from those who are succeeding. Williams confronts us with the ultimate challenge about community building:

"...The question is whether special interests will represent political intelligence or whether political intelligence will represent special interests. ...Man's self-esteem, freedom must be awakened...The issue is not how much men owned, but rather what they made, the nature of the relationships men had with each other in the course of those activities, and what they did after their material wants had been met."

Searching For A New Prometheus...A New Fire...

Stories like Ron Bricker's leap from the human interest pages to the pages of our everyday life. The myths of high-tech are finally being questioned. Neither the slick terminology of a "post industrial service economy" nor the "workplace literacy" jargon hold up well under the immense weight of a stagnating economy. The reality we have to live with is cruel and at odds with our evolutionary roots. We are a creative species, not an automated one. Management for human potential should replace scientific management. Work and the means of paying people will surely change in the future. This is because robots do not buy color TVs, Toyotas, or Apple Computers. It is because a generation of Ron Brickers want out of his high-tech jobs!

Age of Decline or Age of Achievement?

Eons ago a land-bound biped, without much speed and lacking fins, a homely creature without much strength picked up a stone. Evolution's weakling transformed a simple stone into a crude tool... and in so doing changed the face of the planet and the contours of time. This creature pushed our longevity beyond the so-called natural span of twenty years. We have today forgotten that death for most animals comes from predators; instead we worry about decay. We have learned to travel faster than sound and have walked upon a cold rock the ancients called "Luna."

Today, with genetic engineering and other inventions, we have the potential to transform the face and mind of humankind. On the wings of a Space Shuttle or Pioneer Probe we can soar far beyond the gaze of ancient Olympus. And today we are able to compress generations of know-how between two layers of silicon.

Yet, amidst this tremendous progress and potential, we experience at gut level, a soul wrenching feeling that we are not moving forward but are, in fact, slipping backwards. Each day the headlines scream about "corruption," "declining output," and "resource scarcity." The horrors of pollution bubble up in our own backyards. Families and schools seem to dissolve in a bubbling, chaotic social acid. Global holocaust teeters on the tip of a nuclear missile, it's precarious balance threatened by religious , national, and ethnic rivalries. As the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" widens into a deep, dark chasm, we risk becoming victims of a self-fulfilling apocalyptic prophecy.

We are on the brink of realizing and fulfilling our amazing potential--and that terrifies us. We constantly must balance the marvels of our creation with the terrible potential to destroy ourselves. We face both promise and apocalypse. We are a democracy challenged by a technocracy; an educational system confronting its own ignorance and sense of helplessness; a species grasping at the next branch, just out of reach on the evolutionary tree.

Having completed the first 2000 years after Christ, we ponder the next 2000...and wonder if the Kingdom of God on Earth is truly attainable...or just another elusive myth.


Bolles, Richard N. "The Day the Jobs Began to Vanish." Walnut Creek, CA: Newsletter about life/work planning, 3, 1983.

Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974.

Carnevale, Anthony, Leila Gainer, and Ann Meltzer. Workplace Basics: The Skills Employers Want. The American Society for Training and Development, & US Department of Labor and Employment Training Administration. US Department of Labor, 1988.

The Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. America's Choice: high skills or low wages! Executive Summary. National Center on Education and the Economy, 1990.

Drucker, Peter. Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

DeVore, Paul. Technology, An Introduction. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, 1982.

Eisler, Riane. The Chalice And The Blade. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Lee, Richard and Richard DeVore. Man The Hunter. Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing, 1972.

Goodman, Ellen. "Too many of us totally fed up with our work." Olympia, WA: Olympian newspaper, 09 March, 1992.

Lumsden, C. Promethean Fire Reflections on the Origin of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Phillips, Kevin. The Politics of Rich and Poor. New York: Random House, 1990.

Reich, Robert. The Work of Nations. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Rybczynski, Witold. Waiting for the Weekend. New York: Viking, 1991.

Watts, A.G. "Beyond Unemployment? Schools And The Future." British Journal of Educational Studies. 01 Feb, 1987.

Williams, William Appleman. The great evasion; an essay on the contemporary relevance of Karl Marx and on the wisdom of admitting the heretic into the dialogue about America's future. Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Paperbacks, 1964.

Background Information Regarding This Essay

This paper is the culmination of over 20 years of studying and thinking about human labor. Our investigations and discussions began in 1977 when Martin Kimeldorf researched various theories about labor and technology while his brother Howard began graduate work in sociology. They found a common thread in reading and studying Harry Braverman's seminal work about labor. In 1982, Martin fashioned a presentation entitled "High-tech Fad, Low Tech Reality," which was later published in 1985. The current essay is a fully collaborative effort of the two brothers and represents a significant update and expansion of Martin's earlier work.

This essay is offered as a provocative inquiry, more philosophical than scientific in its aims. We ask the reader to consider our arguments in that light. In essence, we are simply asking that you consider if your experiences and observations are reflected in the phrases and examples contained in this essay.

This article Work, Education and the Quality of Life was recognized as "Best Paper" in the International Journal of Career Management in 1993. This award was made by MCB Press which publishes 120 journals annually.

About the Authors

Martin Kimeldorf has spent over 20 years in education as an author, consultant, and teacher. He has written numerous books and articles for teachers and students on the topics of job finding, community service, leisure education, drama, alternative forms of work training, and educational reforms. He has received awards for teaching and playwriting.    
More about Martin Kimeldorf
Howard Kimeldorf teaches sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is an Associate Professor. He has written and edited many scholarly works on the history of organized labor in the United States, including Reds or Rackets? (1988, University of California Press), an historical study of longshore unionism on the East and West Coasts. His second book, Syndicalism, Pure and Simple (Univeristy of California Press, forthcoming), explores the role of syndicalism in the development of American labor. Like his brother, Howard has held various manual and service jobs.

Martin Kimeldorf,   Howard Kimeldorf
1992, 1998
All Rights Reserved.
Amby Duncan-Carr,
page designer
Printing or downloading a single copy of this document for personal use is permitted; transmission in any form or further duplication is prohibited without the express written consent of the author. In addition, any use of the document code, itself, requires the written permission of the web page designer.

 Kimeldorf Library  Autobiography

Felix Felix 1998 Amby Duncan-Carr   All Rights Reserved.

URL of this page: