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Doug Knell


Economies of obsolescence dictate outsourcing. Most of us are stuck with outdated job skills and made obsolete. We're quickly made redundant and realize we were never indispensible. Most of our job skills just don't matter, mate.

Home / Economics  /
Economies Of Obsolescence
1980's cell phone

These items were destined for the trash heap.  What about us?

Back when I was eight years old, my family owned one of the first "high-end" commercially available videocassette recorders (VCR's) for the home, a Sony Betamax SL-7200.  The machine could tape for one hour and cost $1,200 ($4,600 in today's money).   A year later, my father bought the SL-8200 which taped two hours.  Two years later, he owned the very first cassette Walkman model sold in the United States at a price tag of $150 ($400 in today's money).

Skip ahead twenty years.  By the late 1990's, VCR's had become widespread.  Purchase prices had sunk as low as $50 and the machines could tape more than 10 hours.  Walkmans and their clones were equally as ubiquitous and priced as low as $20.   

Products have become cheaper as their core technologies have come down in price.   They're also cheaper because they're made with inferior materials.    Those ancient Betamax machines now lie in the bottom of a closet in my father's house, but I'd warrant that if the tape heads were dusted off and the machines connected to a television set, they would still work.    The original Walkman from 1980 broke decades ago after all the use I put into it.  However, newer Walkmans would've broken in a much shorter time frame with far less use.

We can observe the same effect of obsolescence with almost anything:  television sets, cars, bicycles, computers, printers.  Stuff is manufactured cheaply, increasingly in undeveloped countries, with the intention that when any of it shows signs of defect, it's to be dumped and a new one purchased.  Wirth's Law states that software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster.  In other words, computers, through the interaction of software with hardware, are designed from the very beginning to be obsolescent. 

Obsolescence, as I discuss it here, is not a natural state of the universe.  It's a result of society changing at rates unimaginable in previous times in history.   The last completed century, the twentieth, has brought about more population growth, more technological growth, more travel, more pretty much of anything, than the aggregate totals of all those things from the beginning of time through the end of the nineteenth century.  

Our culture of consumption has only further accelerated obsolescence.     Take clothes.  When I was six or seven years out of university, clothes from my university days still hung in my closets and, if in decent condition, continued to be worn.   I was oblivious that fashion had dated those garments, and when I went out in them, those with more discerning fashion senses pointed out that those clothes from another era made me look old.   It didn't matter that the clothes were in fine condition.  They were obsolete.  

Many of us live right in the heart of obsolescence.  We can't afford or be bothered to constantly upgrade.  Our home interiors still resemble 1985.  We haven't got a touch iPod or Bluetooth cellular phone yet.   We refuse to fork out unnecessary expenditure on a plasma or flat screen television. 

Surrounded by so much obsolescence, we have to ask ourselves a very significant question:  Are we obsolescent?   Not from a metaphysical frame -- i.e. is the human race obsolescent?  I mean it literally.  Is each of us, as individuals, on the road to obsolescence?

Try to imagine what it was like living five hundred years ago.  If you were a silversmith, farmer, weaver, baker, artisan, or bricklayer, you performed your job much like your father did before you.   Innovations came about, but there were relatively few of them and they didn't come very often.   The skills you learned as a youthful apprentice lasted you for a lifetime.    

Then, life sped up.  The Industrial Revolution arrived.    People migrated from villages to the urban centers to work in factories.  'Sped up' is only relative to the pace of life before.  By today's standards, the speed the changes the Revolution brought about was slow.   Skills people picked up in youth were still useful for the rest of their lives.

Sometime in the early twentieth century, this no longer held true.   People could not coast solely on what they picked up as an apprentice.   Certainly after World War II, no one would argue that job skills lasted a lifetime.   I read in a trade magazine several years ago that skills people were learning in college were probably half devalued by the time the student graduated.  That was, I'm sure, an exaggeration, but not by much.   At least my university was realistic about it all.   Way back in 1986 in the student prospectus, they said that most of us would wind up with jobs that didn't then exist.   Can you imagine a university making that claim back in 1886? 

A small percentage of us currently don't have to do much to adapt.   If you worked on Wall Street and sold bonds two decades ago, you can now sell derivatives.  If you're a doctor and recommended Pravachol to high-cholesterol suffers in the early 90's, you could recommend them Lipitor in the 2000's.  A good salesman can sell anything, as they say.   These aren't great examples, because the purveyors on Wall Street and doctors have always been held in a certain awe by the masses.   Even if large numbers among them possess mediocre skills, they can earn undeserved respect.   Others have adapted, ultra successfully, by moving their skills from a small stage in the previous era to the world stage in the global one.  A man with the skills to become a successful multimillion dollar entrepreneur in the 1980's could utilize most of those same skills, with the use of the internet and commonplace globalization, to become a multibillion dollar entrepreneur in the 2010's -- and in less time, too.

Most of us aren't doctors or Wall Street shills or multimillion- or multibillion dollar entrepreneurs.  We may start our own small companies.    Or even more likely, we're employees of someone else's businesses.   

If someone is an average run-of-the-mill employee of Chrysler or GM, what are they going to do when those companies go bankrupt or phase out their jobs from another era?  Simply being a dutiful employee is not enough.   The corporate heads will look at the profit and loss statement.  Unless you're personally responsible for bringing in big contracts for your company, your job will get slashed along the bottom line just like the people who worked a lot less than you did.  It comes down to one thing and one thing only:  either you're invaluable or you're not. 

And though I agree with the notion that anyone in any job should put forward his best efforts,  the best probably isn't good enough to stave off obsolescence.   How many of us are indispensible to our organizations?   If an organization is smart, none of us.  A company placing its entire success on the back of one person is courting disaster.  Should that person leave for greener pastures or die unexpectedly, where does that leave the company?    That said, there are still people in an organization who punch beyond their weight class and losing these people, even if not completely indispensible, would be a huge blow.  The company is willing to keep them on at huge salaries, stock options, company cars, drugs, and prostitutes.   But, again, what percentage of all workers fall into this category?   If we all put in twenty-four hour days, there are still only a few who land in the invaluable category.

There's a lot of rhetoric from governments about creating new jobs for the coming century as older jobs become obsolescent or outsourced.   (Obsolescence and outsourcing equate to the same thing, by the way, as far as a job holder is concerned).   I don't really believe the governments or their corporate partners honestly care.   If a company could be completely automated, if all living and breathing employees made redundant apart from a few select managers, shareholders would be delighted.   Lower costs should mean higher profits.

And they will, up to the point that all obsolescent employees are still able to get jobs.   If the long term goal of companies is to minimize costs to the point where every job which can be automated and outsourced is, what are all the average run-of-the-mill people going to do to earn the money to buy any products?   It used to be that the portrait of a dismal future had Orwellian overtones:  all of us were being watched by the government while conducting our mindless jobs.  Sorry, that future is now.   The real future won't have us doing mindless jobs when those mindless jobs can be automated or outsourced.    No one has given any serious thought to what most of us will be doing in the real future.

In the industrialized world of the past, only lower end jobs were made obsolete or outsourced.  Today, what were formerly seen as white collar jobs are going the same route.   Routine programming tasks can be sent to India.    Legal research can be funneled out to lower-cost countries, even if the actual briefs must be filed and argued by lawyers legally allowed to practice in the higher-cost country.   Medical professionals are not completely immune to obsolescence either though they have been so far.    At some stage in the not-too-distant future, Western insurance companies will wake up to the fact that it's better for their bottom lines to let patients undergo costly treatments, like a quadruple bypass, in countries like India and Thailand.    That means less available work for Western doctors.

If you're mid- or even upper-level management, see ya.  As the people you manage are made obsolescent, why would the company still need you?  Enjoy the mediocre copper -- not golden -- parachute you're offered and watch before you jump.  The parachute probably has holes in it.   

Don't cry about it.   Don't write your representatives about it.   There's nothing they can do.   That's like asking someone who's rolled the boulder down the hill to stop it.   The guys at the very top of the government put together this global situation.  We live in a world of the hypocritical trade rules they've designed, and they're designed to be inconsistent.  These guys don't give a hoot if you're the one working on the assembly line to produce their vacuum cleaner or if man in China is doing it . . . . or if a robot has replaced the both of you.    The politicians' way of dealing with and personally dodging obsolescence deserves a discussion of its own and is covered in Politicians, Masters of Defying Reality.

See you on the trash heap.

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