Middle class revival? The role of manufacturing

In generations past, doing the blue-collar work of manufacturing would allow someone to provide for a family, have a comfortable standard of living, and build up a middle class of people between the unskilled laborers and the wealthy business owners, investors, etc. Within the past say 20-30 years, cost cutting measures have led to a decline in manufacturing in the United States, and with it the solid foundation of a middle class lifestyle. With the talk about re-shoring, many people feel like the manufacturing jobs that are coming back will lead to a return of the strong middle class of old. However, Nin-Hai Tseng, writer for Fortune sees things differently.

Rebuilding the middle class?

In her article on Fortune/CNN, Tseng paints a bleak picture about the return of the middle class due to wage stagnation in manufacturing. And, for the most part, I’d say she’s probably right. I don’t know that the return of manufacturing in the US will rebuild the middle class to the level it was generations ago. However, I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom either.

How about a smaller middle class?

The way I see things, automation has replaced many manual jobs, and those particular jobs aren’t coming back. Instead of having a group of guys sweating for 12 hours a day feeding parts into a press or welding parts, you can have robots do that work in 24 hour shifts with no supervision, no benefits package, and no lost time to injury or bathroom breaks. However, we haven’t quite reached the Singularity* yet. That means, while there might not be the rote manual jobs that once were, there are positions in manufacturing for robot builders, assemblers, installers, programmers, and repair technicians. And the upside to those jobs is, they are skilled higher-paying jobs that can and will lead to rebuilding a middle class life, at least for the people who get those jobs.

So, while we might not have masses of people employed in the factories again, the return of manufacturing could lead to a return of the middle class life for a selected few. And, in my opinion, that’s better than no middle class jobs.

The Singularity

If you’ve never heard this term, I encourage you to read the Wiki page on the singularity. In a nutshell, at some point, technology will gain intelligence equal to ours. At that point, referred to as the singularity, the machines will advance faster than humans and our ability to predict the results is gone. Maybe it’ll be like “The Matrix”. Maybe “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Who knows.