The Post Manufacturing Age

Several advanced countries have almost completed the transition to a post-manufacturing society. This has traditionally been called "post-industrial" but this is a misconception of what constitutes "work" and industry. By making a distinction between manufacturing and service "industries" the real nature of the transition has been obscured.

Humans have gone through several periods of economic organization. The first was the tribe or family association arrangement. Each group was expected to be, essentially, self-sufficient. Their was some small amount of trading for regional items like shells or salt, but in most cases the economy was local. This organization was maintained in much the same form when people moved from hunting to farming. The principal characteristic of this type of society is that there is no central control, and only nominal local hierarchy. What organization that exists in more in the domains of religion and chieftains. Work is mostly self-directed.

The rise of mechanization led to the model of organization associated with the "industrial age". Workers were no longer self-directed and an entirely separate management/ownership structure was created. This is still the model that most of western society finds itself in. As factory production declines in certain countries it is replaced by "service" jobs. But most of these jobs are still in traditional, hierarchal organizations. There is no meaningful difference to the status of someone pushing a button on a metal stamping press or someone pushing buttons on a computer.

There is some disagreement on the amount that manufacturing has declined (especially in the US). It is clear, however, that the outsourcing and downsizing of the past 30 years is nearing an end. The collapse of the airline and automobile industries leaves no large, traditional, industrial sectors untouched. Traditional manufacturing is now a legacy part of the economy and while it will continue to make a substantial contribution to the GDP it will no longer be the source of growth and innovation.

The service sector that has grown up along side it has, in general, less need for extensive capital investment. Starting up a firm which uses computers and telecommunications as it primary resources is much cheaper than building a new steel mill. This facts allows service firms to be much more flexible in their staffing and siting arrangements. We have already seen a trend towards using freelance employees, consultants or other conditional workers. Much of this work can be done without the need for factories or centralized offices. This is leading to a partial return to the self-employed artisan or craftsman model. This type of person only existed as an adjunct to the two earlier forms of society. The number of trades that fit the model was small: doctors or other health providers, blacksmiths, tin smiths and similar workers. In many cases the skill set was not unique, but the small amount of capital required to establish oneself limited the number of people that could do the work.

In the future, it won't be the specialized equipment, but the specialized knowledge that allows one to ply the trade. Artists, designers and other creative types will still be a minority. So will people with specific knowledge of certain sectors, such as drug salesmen. As more people become free agents the relationship between traditional hierarchical firms and their workers will shift, or, perhaps, the existing model will continue to predominate. Firms like Microsoft and Google, which make very little that is tangible, still have built themselves into traditional organizations in which thousands of workers operate within a traditional hierarchy. If this turns out to continue to be the dominant model then the post manufacturing (or post industrial) age will look pretty much like the industrial age.

On the international level we can expect to see continuing stress. When most of the world was in either the tribal or agricultural stage there was little a society could do to dominate it neighbors. When some moved into the industrial age they had the ability to become colonizers and dominate less industrialized regions. Now we will have a world where three levels of development exist simultaneously: tribal/agricultural, industrial, and post-manufacturing. How, or if, the post-manufacturing societies will be able to dominate others without the appeals to military might that were used in the past is an open question.

The US has distorted its industrial policy so that militarism now dominates all other sectors. This allows it to project conventional military strength, but whether this can continue without a corresponding commercial manufacturing sector is not clear. Recent attempts to use soft power with trading partners have been only moderately successful.

For the west to continue its resource use at present levels may lead to a new type of colonialism rather than the spread of democracy and enlightenment to the poorer parts of the world. Shortages don't bring out the altruism in people.

The economic and social distress that people have felt over the past several decades may be abating as the decline in manufacturing reaches its end game. People are adapting to new working conditions and wage levels. This may indicate that those hoping for a rise of worker-based populist reform may have lost their window of opportunity. A majority in the US now think the economy is doing better, for example. It looks like the revolution will be postponed after all.

Moral: The battle over domestic manufacturing is over. Time to look ahead.

Click here to see all my essays in context.

If you have any comments or for further discussions email me at
Copyright © 2006 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.