Here’s one shorthand way of describing how work has changed over the past two hundred years: in the beginning, we mostly worked to meet our own needs; then we mostly worked to make stuff for us or someone else to sell; now we mostly “work” to sell things that others have made.
There are reasons to wonder how stable this current state is. How badly do others need us in particular to sell the things they make? And if the thing-making world decides to cut us out of the arrangement, what exactly will we do next?
Thing-making continues to shift from the West to Asia. Here’s the story of one particularly stark instance of that shift. Notice especially the last paragraph, which points out that when the steel mill is finally gone you are not in exactly the same place as you were when it hadn’t yet come.
The Ruhr Valley was the heart of Germany’s industrial might. For more than 200 years, the smokestacks in this northwest corner of Germany pounded out the steel and iron that would form the backbone of the nation’s industry. And when the war drums rumbled, these factories supplied imperial Germany with its field guns, armored tanks and shells.
Prosperous communities grew up around these old blast furnaces and mills. People took pride in the stuff they could make with their hands. Tens of thousands found work in the factories of the Ruhr. Generations passed with the knowledge that their sons and daughters could make a life here and carry on the legacy of such a place. For a long time, that was the way it went.
But the winds of change patiently grind away at even the most impressive of advantages. In the early 1990s, the industrious workers of Asia powered the mortar and pestle that would crush the Ruhr’s traditional way of life.
It was a slow process, but the endgame was not hard to see. While the South Koreans became the most efficient producers of steel in the world, German workers were agitating for a 35-hour workweek. While the Chinese worked all day in their mills and new factories sprouted up like spring peepers all through China, Germany increased taxes and expanded its bloated government programs.
By the turn of the millennium, no one could ignore the stark reality any longer. The mills and factories of the Ruhr started to close — forever. In his terrific book, China Shakes the World, James Kynge tells the story of ThyssenKrupp’s steel mill in Dortmund, one of the largest in Germany. The Germans called it the Phoenix, inspired by its rise from the ashes of bombing raids in World War II.
Within a month of ThyssenKrupp closing the mill, a Chinese company bought it with the idea of disassembling the entire mill and taking it to China, near the mouth of the Yangtze River. Soon after this Chinese company bought the mill, 1,000 Chinese workers arrived in Germany to begin the process of taking the plant apart and bringing it to China. The Germans got an up-close lesson in why they could not compete. The Chinese worked seven days a week for 12 hours a day. The Germans started to complain. So the Chinese, in deference to local law, took one day off.
In the end, the Chinese dismantled the mill in less than one year — a full two years ahead of the time ThyssenKrupp initially thought it would take.
When the Chinese departed, they left the makeshift dormitories and kitchens they occupied for a year neat and clean. There was, however, a single pair of black boots left in one of the dormitories. The boots carried the brand name Phoenix, which was the same name of the plant the Chinese just took apart. The boots also carried the label “Made in China.” Kynge writes, “Nobody could tell, however, whether the single pair of forgotten boots was an oversight or an intentional pun.”
Over 5,000 miles away, the Chinese rebuilt the steel mill exactly as it was in Germany. As Kynge writes: “Altogether, 275,000 tons of equipment had been shipped, along with 44 tons of documents that explained the intricacies of the reassembly process.” Doing all of this was still cheaper — by about 60% — than building a new mill. Plus, in China, the demand for steel was such that the mill could start producing steel immediately at full capacity.
As recently as 1975, China’s entire output of steel could not match this one mill in Dortmund. Now, the Dortmund plant itself stands in China. And in Germany, you have a dying industrial city, unemployed steelworkers and the scarred earth where the mill once stood. Germany is thinking of turning the site into parkland and perhaps creating a lake and marina. But as one burly steelworker says in Kynge’s book: “Do we look like yachtsmen to you?”