Foreign Policy Magazine

Then They Came for the Lawyers

Technology has already driven blue-collar workers into the underclass. Professionals may be next.

STRANGE THOUGH IT MAY SOUND, there was a time when manufacturing work resembled professional work today. In the 18th century, on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, life wasn’t bad for skilled tradespeople, who enjoyed a remarkable level of freedom and flexibility in performing their work. They represented a relatively well-off, aspirational class.

Then came the machines. The mechanization of manufacturing transformed industrial work. Because the new machines cost lots of money, bosses kept a close eye on workers to make sure they were doing their jobs and taking good care of the equipment. Over time, this monitoring allowed industrialists to rejigger production in efficiency-enhancing ways. Where manufacturing work was once something of an art that relied on knowledge built up through apprenticeship and experience, it became a highly scripted slog, broken down into repetitive tasks. Anyone could do it, and so the special status and relatively high wages once enjoyed by manufacturing workers disappeared. Laborers became mere extensions of the machines, handling tasks the machines could not—until, eventually, they could.

Across advanced economies, the professional class—white-collar workers in business management, technology,

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