Technological Innovation Begets Migration - Pacific Standard

Technological Innovation Begets Migration

In a virtuous circle, migration and innovation make the world go round.
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The Packard automotive factory in Detroit, 2012. (Photo: Chris Krahe/Flickr)

The Packard automotive factory in Detroit, 2012. (Photo: Chris Krahe/Flickr)

Migration, not density, informs innovation. The dominant narrative today claims greater density informs innovation. Poppycock. Greater density is the result of the relationship between migration and innovation. Some history:

However, while society is better off on average, innovation has also produced both winners and losers, opportunity and risk, migration and displacement. For instance, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, over the last 150 years there has been a dramatic migration from the farm to the factory, and then from the factory to the office. In 1840, about 70 per cent of U.S. jobs were on the farm, dropping to 10 per cent in the 1950s, and today sitting at less than 4 per cent. In the 1950s, about 40 per cent of U.S. jobs were in manufacturing – today this number has been cut in half. Where have all the jobs gone? Into the service sector, where almost 80 per cent of the jobs in the U.S. are today.

Migration and economic restructuring work hand-in-hand. As agriculture declined and manufacturing ascended, people moved from one economy to another.

For peak agriculture, 70 percent of the workforce labored on the farm. For peak manufacturing, just 40 percent worked in the factory. As we move forward in peak economies, less of the workforce toils in the dominant industry. Why do economic epochs wane?

The success of any economic epoch sows the seeds of its own demise. White manufacturing employees earned enough to escape the horrible world of United States cities. If non-white manufacturing employees earned enough to escape the horrible world of U.S. cities, politics redlined them back in place. So "white flight" became the explosion of college-educated workers. Those who could get out, did. The economic geography transformed.

After the last recession, the number of workers in the dominant industry was way smaller than the heyday of Detroit. The dominant industry is tech. Less people benefit from the grand wages of tech than benefited from the grand wages of manufacturing. For perspective, less people benefited from the grand wages of manufacturing than they did in agriculture. Onward we march to Marxist oblivion.

Technological innovation means less labor making exceptional wages. Innovative labor should share such exceptional wages. And for innovative labor to reap such wages, it should migrate.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.

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