Maybe the Luddites Had It Right

Luddites were 19th century English textile workers who smashed the newly invented machines they feared would replace them. We now know that machines and other technology are enhancements used to increase productivity and don’t necessarily replace workers. Still, the post-recession economy may prove the Luddites right.

Technology replacing workers
New machines, software, cloud applications, and other technologies continue to debut. They help to make companies run more efficiently and, in many cases, using fewer workers. Earlier this year, AP reported “Some occupations are beneficiaries of the march of technology, such as software engineers and app designers for smartphones and tablet computers. Overall, though, technology is eliminating far more jobs than it is creating.”

Other findings by AP:

  • Technology is enabling startups to launch with one-third fewer employees than in the 1990s
  • Companies in the S&P 500 Index grew profits post-recession by one-third while cutting their payrolls in half

Low-paid workers
Those who have jobs may not have enough spending money to oil the economy. Kiplinger reported that 28% of workers are in jobs that earned them less than the poverty level (this is 5% more than in 2002). The Kiplinger Letter had it right: “An economy can’t grow if too many workers don’t have money to spend.”

The answer from some economists and politicians has been to raise the minimum wage. However, many small business owners have said that a higher minimum wage will force them to use fewer workers. What’s the right answer? I don’t know.

Early in the last century, the story goes that Henry Ford paid his workers $5 an hour, an unprecedented sum for the times, so that they could afford to buy the cars he sold. The real story (the reason for the high pay and how it was figured) may be somewhat different, but the lesson seems sound. In the short run, replacing workers with technology and paying low wages are helpful to the bottom line. I’m no economist, but it seems to me that in the long run, there may be few left to buy what we have to sell. The Luddites in the 19th century were concerned with their jobs; now it seems that they had a point when it comes to the economy.


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