What happens when a river shifts its course?

We can all agree that the world has changed enormously since humans first appeared on earth. What we, as humans, can’t seem to reach a consensus on is why it happened. Till the mid-18th century, humans lived in agricultural societies–regardless of whether they were located in Asia, Europe, Africa or the Americas.

Technology is often credited with creating sweeping changes across the world. However, it can also be argued that it takes a lot more than technological progress to create sweeping change. So many of the technological tools that we have come to rely on during the pandemic were invented well before we found ourselves locked up in our homes with nowhere to go.

Technological change is undoubtedly a key ingredient to growth of any kind. It allows us to reorganise and reallocate our resources–be it time or money. By doing more with less, we are able to create more. Manufacturing–the process of turning raw materials and components into finished goods–has been going on for thousands of years. For most of human history, however, it was done by individuals or small groups. So why did we move into big factories?

For starters, mass production gave us many economic advantages, namely, a greater control over the speed and the quality of work. The process of standardisation reduced the need for businesses to rely on individual craftsmen and increased the gravitational pull of working in a factory.

Over time, mass production led to the consumer society… It is ironic, then, that manufacturing has become less important as a proportion of GDP. Statistics show that the proportion of US personal spending devoted to tangible goods has dropped from more than 60% in 1950 to 36% in 2014. This data is consistent with the global trend that more and more people now consume merchandise in a non-physical format. CDs, DVDs and video game cassettes are a thing of the past.

To be at the forefront of innovation is to be a pioneer. The fact nevertheless remains that being a late adopter of technological change has its advantages. In the case of Britain, for instance, the nation spent decades developing steam engines, spinning wheels and other machinery. Other nations, in turn, bypassed the exorbitant trial-and-error phase and ended up using the best available versions of those machines at a time when it became economically viable to do so.

As industrialisation spread across the world, workers organised to fight for better pay and working conditions with clashes between labour and businesses turning violent from time to time. Industrial unrest became common and strikes even sometimes led to casualties. The main reason the strikes were effective was because the economy had become dependent on daily wage earners. It was around that time that governments started offering welfare benefits to stow away the then very serious threat of communism.

When our economies were primarily agricultural, supernatural forces–as opposed to political ideologies–played a huge role in the explanation of whether or not a yield or a harvest was a success. This belief fell to the wayside as our way of living became more industrial.

In the past century, one of the most heated debates that has taken centre stage is: what is the role of the government? In most countries, businesses–and in turn, the people who depend on them, which is everybody–are heavily reliant on workers who have both been educated by the public school system.

Even the internet, which we have to come to rely on for our daily necessities, was developed by research undertaken by the public sector. Moreover, public services–such as defence, law, transportation and healthcare–are all funded by our tax dollars. As the factors that underpin the unexplainable economy grow more and more complex, governments have vastly expanded the role that they play in our lives.

We are now upon a new age. An age where the river shifts its course once again.

What will the world look like ten years from now?

Will we be crediting or blaming the pandemic for the way our lives changed? Undoubtedly so.

As to why it happened–I’m not sure we’ll ever find a satisfactory answer.

4 thoughts on “The Unexplainable Economy | How the River of Labour Changes Course

Leave a Comment