The last 150 years


A hundred and fifty years ago 75 per cent of the working population in the USA was involved in food production. Today it is under 2 per cent (and according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics these numbers are similar in Australia).

It would be an interesting exercise to sit down with a town of 100 workers back in the day (150 years ago) and design how work would look if only two of them were now needed to produce the food for the whole town.

The conversation would start by saying we now have 73 of us that are free to do whatever we decide. Perhaps everyone should just work a quarter of the time? What else would we want to do? Or maybe we should work a bit more than that and get some more stuff.

We could ask who wants a bigger house. Someone might say an extra room would be nice - get the kids sleeping in a different room.

(We’ve actually made houses ten times bigger despite there being no evidence that there is a correlation between bigger houses and more happiness, but that’s on the table if we want to work for it - in Australia new houses got 50% larger between 1985 and 2010, again with no evidence of a correlation with increased happiness).

We might ask who wants some more clothes? Our townsfolk could have answered that another shirt would be nice, and new shoes for the kids too.

(Many of us now actually have a whole room just for our clothes, and still have so many clothes that they won’t all fit).

Apart from having a lot bigger houses filled with much more stuff, what are we actually doing with all this time that’s been freed up? What are the 73 people out of every hundred who are no longer producing food doing?

Out of every 100 workers today in the USA:

15 are the government. (15 people to govern the other 85? Yep).

13 are in mining, construction and manufacturing, making all the stuff.

18 are selling the stuff to everyone else (wholesale, retail, transportation and warehousing).

12 are in health care.

10 are in leisure and hospitality.

A couple are in education teaching everyone else how all this works.

Another 18 are basically having meetings and writing emails (information, financial activities, professional and business services).

And the final 10 will be doing other. It’s not exactly clear what that is, but I’m sure it involves meetings and emails.

Despite it taking less than 2% of the population now to feed us all, and having the opportunity to design our lives and our societies to look pretty much however we want, we’re actually working harder than ever, and are no happier than we were 150 years ago.

If that sounds kind of nuts, it’s because it is.