The New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch the other day that is simply filled with astonishing statistics.
For one thing, it reports global statistics, not just national ones. Global unemployment fell in 2006 to 6.3 percent from 6.4 percent, and productivity is rising nearly everywhere. The United States is the world’s most productive nation, measured in annual output per worker, but then American workers work more hours than those in most other countries. Ireland was second. When measured in output per hour, Norway was first. But Norway is a very large oil producer with a very small population, which distorts the statistics. The United States was second by that measure. East Asia shows the greatest increase in productivity, but from a much lower level than Europe or North America. Altogether, “In 2006, the productivity rise was 3.3 percent at the global level, 2.1 percent for the industrialized world and 8.5 percent in East Asia.”
The number of working poor is falling sharply everywhere but in sub-Saharan Africa, down by 50 percent in East Asia between 1996 and 2006.
But for me, the most astonishing statistic of all was buried in the very last paragraph of the story. For the first time in 10,000 years, agriculture is no longer the primary source of global employment. According to the report, in 2006 industry employed 21.9 percent of the world’s workers, services 42 percent, and agriculture 36.1 percent. Ten years ago, agriculture was at 42 percent and services at 37 percent. That is a very rapid change indeed. It also indicates that much of the developing world seems to be bypassing the industrial stage of development and moving directly to services, perhaps because the enormous growth of global trade in the last 50 years has made it both unprofitable and unnecessary to establish local industries.
Agriculture made civilization possible, but it made prosperity possible for only the few. And for millennia civilized societies were islands surrounded by barbarians. For 200 years industrialized societies were islands of ever-increasing and ever-more-widespread prosperity surrounded by those who still lived at a subsistence level except for the few.
That is now changing rapidly. Assuming politics or nature doesn’t produce a global disaster, the world might be a much better place in a few decades, with abundance, not subsistence, the fate of most of humankind. If that should come to pass, the old order will indeed have passed.
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