(3 of 11)
If America hopes to match foreign competition, it may have to rely more heavily on automation. Professor William Abernathy of the Harvard Business School estimates, for example, that in order for the Ford Motor Co. to be as efficient as Japanese auto firms, it can afford to keep only half the 256,600 American employees it had in 1978.
Such predictions lead to troubling questions. Will foreign competition and automation generate ever greater unemployment? Can technology create as many jobs as it destroys? How difficult will it be for workers to move from the jobs of the past to the jobs of the future?
No one knows for sure, and opinions diverge wildly. At one extreme is Nobel Laureate Wassily Leontief, director of New York University's Institute for Economic Analysis, who foresees mass joblessness. Says he: "The computer and the robot are already beginning to replace the simpler mental functions of blue-and white-collar workers. Man, as a factor of production, has only two aspects: physical and mental. Both are being replaced. The only solution is to stretch out vacations, shorten work hours and share available jobs. Human workers will go the way of the horse." Responds a former French Finance Minister: "Nonsense. People can adjust, unless they're asses."
Other experts argue that warnings similar to Leontief's have surfaced regularly ever since computers began popping up in the 1950s. Says John Diebold, a New York City management consultant whose classic 1952 book, Automation, made the word a familiar term: "At various times, usually at the depth of a recession, people have said it was going to be horrible from here on because of automation. But a couple of years later, it's all forgotten. Certain types of jobs die, and others grow. That is the sign of a healthy economy."
Many workers will undoubtedly have trouble switching from the old industries to the new. Data Resources, the Lexington, Mass., economic-forecasting firm, predicts that unemployment will fall only gradually as business pulls out of the recession, from the present 10.2% to 8.5% at the end of 1985. Later in the decade, says Economics Professor George Wilson of Indiana University, the unemployment situation may ease substantially. Reason: growth in the labor force is slowing sharply as the baby-boom generation reaches middle age. Wilson estimates that the size of the work force will increase at an average annual rate of no more than 1.5% during the 1980s, after rising at a 2.7% clip in the 1970s.
That is good news for young people, but it may not help middle-age blue-collar workers who are not trained for anything but traditional manufacturing. The largest proportion of new jobs are being created in service industries