Henry Ford’s assembly lines certainly accelerated the age of automation and expanded the middle class to a level unheard of before its invention. That was a good and a bad thing at the same time. It increased the number of goods available to almost every one, but it also created a mass of people who were basically turned into brainless machines who did the same thing thousands of times every working day. The middle-class increase that resulted from that invention is quickly shrinking today. Brainless machines are no longer needed, at least living versions. We now have an abundance of programmed robots who have taken over those stifling tasks. These non-human machines don’t get tired. They don’t make stupid mistakes anticipating the weekend or trying to get over one. Maybe most importantly, they don’t strike to get better wages. They don’t even know what wages are. They simply work literally 24/7 doing the same thing flawlessly over and over again.
But, what is to happen to those who these robots replaced? Their resumes just don’t qualify them to do much more than minimum wage jobs now. I worked as one of those machines for four summers of the 1960s to pay my college education. The pay was ok, even when I had to pay Jimmy Hoffa’s union a portion of my $1 and hour wage. But, the work was stifling especially given the union mandated quotas. My last summer there I just got tired of doing almost nothing so for a week, I put out over 300% of the daily quota. Needless to say the union was not too happy, and I was not invited back to work during that last summer before graduation.
Getting back to the story of this post, I wonder what the world would look like today if assembly lines had not been invented? Before that, the world depended on cottage industries for its goods and services. Craftsman, who had previously apprenticed in the trade, provided what people needed. What would the world look like today if that had continued? It is almost certain that we would not have as many luxuries as we do, but would that be a bad thing? Of course, capitalism depends on people continually wanting more and more, so that economic system might not have risen to the surface as prominently as it did.
Without the assembly line —
- would the average American family be drowning in debt?
- would we be so obsessed with buying more and more?
- would so many cling to what others tell them to think?
- would we be more educated, and therefore make intelligent decisions?
Would the world look different if the assembly line had not been invented? The answer is most obviously “YES”. But the real question is, would we be better off than we are now?