Lessons from Poland & the Industrial Revolution, Opportunity or Adversity?

Royla Castle Warsaw Burning 1939. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Royla Castle Warsaw Burning 1939.
Wikipedia Creative Commons.


A column in the National Post by Anne Applebaum  writing from Poland on the similarities between the situation in Poland in 1939 and that in Ukraine today ended with the question:

So is it hysterical to prepare for total war? Or is it naïve not to do so?

This is not a political post, if you want all the details, follow the link and read the article. The point of mentioning it here is that in Poland in 1939, despite the ominous signs of impending invasions from both the East and West, many Poles were going about their daily lives as if there was no reason to worry or make contingency plans. The writer gives as an example a wedding in a country house which she now owns. Soon after that wedding most of the guests were dead or had been forced to leave Poland.

I wrote about the uncertainty in the world in my post on 19 August How to stay positive in a world in turmoil, since then, the situation in Ukraine has got much worse. American planes are bombing ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, other trouble spots have flared up in Pakistan and elsewhere. One bit of good news is that the ceasefire in the Israel / Gaza conflict appears to be holding.

Computers at another major bank have been hacked, and today there are reports that nude photographs of many celebrities have been illegally obtained and are being published on the internet. The first is a cause for concern, the second a case of “those who live by the sword, die by the sword”, not causing me any lost sleep. The easiest way to prevent nude or embarrassing photographs being illicitly obtained is to not have them taken.

I am not drawing attention to these events to be negative, but because they are further signs that the world is changing.

In a conversation with a very astute reader last week, we were discussing the new trend of repatriating some jobs that had been moved offshore over the last few years. Some of these are being brought back to North America because of dissatisfaction with the offshore workers efficiency. Low labour costs not enough incentive to offset problems of a remote work force. Others are being brought back because advances in robot technology make it cheaper to automate them than to employ foreigners even at the low wages they receive. It makes sense that if the robots are developed and programmed on this continent, then it is easier to commission and operate them here too.

Is this the start of a major shift?

Although it may put workers in India, the Philippines and elsewhere out of jobs, it is unlikely to result in huge numbers of new jobs here except perhaps in the field of robot design, programming, manufacture and installation.

The question of where would new jobs for new graduates come from arose. My learned friend suggest that if we could transport ourselves back 200 years when the Industrial revolution in Europe was gaining momentum, we would be asking the identical question.

Then it would have been about jobs for thousands of workers in the cotton and textile mills, agricultural workers and others in labour intensive industries being displaced by new technology.

No one could have foreseen the huge numbers of jobs in the new industries and services that would be created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then again in the information technology sector in the late 20th century.

Where do we go from here? We don’t have accurate crystal balls, the only thing we can predict with certainty is that change will keep happening. The people who built huge commercial empires during the Industrial Revolution and in the waves of new technology that came later, took advantage of the new systems without becoming enslaved by them.

Despite the preaching by positive thinking practitioners (myself included) that every one has the potential to be, do and have whatever they set their minds to, the reality does not show that.

History shows that the majority of people will not become successful entrepreneurs, business owners or employers. That has been true for thousands of years since the first societies of hunter gatherers domesticated crops and could afford to spend time on higher level activities than looking for food. Self employment levels may rise in the years ahead, but most people will still be dependent on jobs.

Whether self-employed or on someone else’s pay roll, survival in the years ahead will depend on doing the best job we can with whatever technology we can master and use to help us become more productive.

Previous waves of disruption by new technology created huge opportunities for those who adapted to take advantage of them. Despite the uncertainty and conflict in the world right now, new opportunities are being created and will continue to be. We just cannot imagine what they will be.

The typical worker in the post digital age might combine full or part-time work as an employee with a side line business, freelancing or some form of paid community service. Others might rely on several different types of part-time jobs. Job sharing, payment for services by barter, other models as yet unknown could all be part of that future.

The best insurance against redundancy in the future is the development of skills that will be in demand either as an entrepreneur, an employee or both.

What is the next new skill you are going to acquire? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

p.s One way to acquire new skills is to take Chris Brogan’s Owners Path  check it out. (affiliate link)

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  2 comments for “Lessons from Poland & the Industrial Revolution, Opportunity or Adversity?

  1. Roberta
    September 3, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    I see many parallels to the years before WW II these days. Of course, those insights are not from first hand knowledge but from reading history. Yet it seems to me we are moving toward some thing big. Worst part the USA is leaderless and that makes everything even more scary for me.

    How will I react if worst comes to worst. That goes back a few posts ago. Resilience.

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