Manufacturing is following exactly the same path that farming trod earlier. Beginning in 1920, and accelerating after the second world war, farm production shot up in all developed countries. Before the first world war, many Western European countries had to import farm products. Now there is only one net farm importer left: Japan. Every single European country now has large and increasingly unsaleable farm surpluses. In quantitative terms, farm production in most developed countries today is probably at least four times what it was in 1920 and three times what it was in 1950 (except in Japan). But whereas at the beginning of the 20th century farmers made up the largest single group in the working population in most developed countries, now they account for no more than 3% in any developed country. And whereas at the beginning of the 20th century agriculture was the largest single contributor to national income in most developed countries, in 2000 in America it contributed less than 2% to GDP.
Manufacturing is unlikely to expand its output in volume terms as much as agriculture did, or to shrink as much as a producer of wealth and of jobs. But the most believable forecast for 2020 suggests that manufacturing output in the developed countries will at least double, while manufacturing employment will shrink to 10-12% of the total workforce.
In America, the transition has largely been accomplished already, and with a minimum of dislocation. The only hard-hit group have been African Americans, to whom the growth in manufacturing jobs after the second world war offered quick economic advancement, and whose jobs have now largely gone. But by and large, even in places that relied heavily on a few large manufacturing plants, unemployment remained high only for a short time. Even the political impact in America has been minimal.
But will other industrial countries have an equally easy passage? In Britain, manufacturing employment has already fallen quite sharply without causing any unrest, although it seems to have produced social and psychological problems. But what will happen in countries such as Germany or France, where labour markets remain rigid and where, until very recently, there has been little upward mobility through education? These countries already have substantial and seemingly intractable unemployment, eg, in Germany’s Ruhr and in France’s old industrial area around Lille. They may face a painful transition period with severe social upheavals.
The biggest question mark is over Japan. To be sure, it has no working-class culture, and it has long appreciated the value of education as an instrument of upward mobility. But Japan’s social stability is based on employment security, especially for blue-collar workers in big manufacturing industry, and that is eroding fast. Yet before employment security was introduced for blue-collar workers in the 1950s, Japan had been a country of extreme labour turbulence. Manufacturing’s share of total employment is still higher than in almost any other developed country — around a quarter of the total — and Japan has practically no labour market and little labour mobility.