Industrialization and Leisure

metal worker artisan

One of the things that automation is supposed to bring is greater leisure.

It doesn’t always work that way. For example, when the vacuum cleaner came along in 1908, it was expected to help out with the “servant problem.”

The servant problem was caused by automation in the first place, since factory work opened new options for people who might previously have gone into domestic service. Factories increased the amount of consumer goods available and made them cheaper, leading to the rise of stores, which also drew from the same labor pool where domestic workers had previously been found. Those who were still willing to work as servants expected — and could get — more money and better benefits.

Hence the servant problem.

By 1920, it was so hard to get domestic workers that most middle class women were doing their own housework. Vacuum cleaners were thought of as mechanical servants, replacing the hired help — but of course the lady of the house had to put in more time running a vacuum than she had spent telling a maid to sweep the carpet.

What’s more, standards rose. Electric lights made it easier to see the dust and dirt, and housewives spent as much time vacuuming as previous generations had spent sweeping.

The same thing happened with other kinds of automation. People who had been satisfied with a couple of work shirts and one for Sunday when those shirts were made by hand expected to own a fresh shirt for every day of the week once factory-made shirts became plentiful.

And higher productivity doesn’t mean that workers finish early and go home to relax.

As ever higher levels of automation become the norm in U.S. factories, it’s hard to get qualified workers — at least for the wages manufacturers are willing to pay. This leads to further automation. People may worry that the number of jobs available will decrease, but it doesn’t seem likely that workers will just get shorter workweeks for the same income, as futurists of the past predicted.

Industrialization was supposed to increase the leisure class and allow more of us to devote time to art and scientific study, or at least to recreation. At this point, it doesn’t seem likely.

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