The extraordinary technological innovations of the past century are unlikely to be repeatedby Robert J Gordon / January 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
This article is an edited extract from “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living since the Civil War”, Princeton University Press
In the century after the end of the Civil War, life in the United States changed beyond recognition. There was a revolution—an economic, rather than a political one—which freed people from an unremitting daily grind of manual labour and household drudgery and a life of darkness, isolation and early death. By the 1970s, many manual, outdoor jobs had been replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by machines, darkness was replaced by electric light, and isolation was replaced not only by travel, but also by colour television, which brought the world into the living room. Most importantly, a newborn infant could expect to live not to the age of 45, but to 72. This economic revolution was unique—and unrepeatable, because so many of its achievements could happen only once.
Economic growth is not a steady process that occurs at a regular pace. Instead, progress is much more rapid at certain times. There was virtually no economic growth for millennia until 1770, only slow growth in the transitional century before 1870, remarkably rapid growth in the century ending in 1970, and slower growth since then. My thesis is that some inventions are more important than others, and America’s growth in the century after the Civil War was made possible by a clustering, in the late 19th century, of what I call the “Great Inventions.”
Since 1970, economic growth has been dazzling and disappointing. This apparent paradox is resolved when we recognise that recent advances have mostly occurred in a narrow sphere of activity having to do with entertainment, communications and the collection and processing of information. For the rest of what humans care about—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health and working conditions both inside and outside the home—progress has slowed since 1970, both qualitatively and quantitatively.