When I was eight, I sold Christmas ribbons and cards door to door. Then I had a newspaper route. A couple of years later I bought an old trailer for my even older car and towed around lawn mowers to cut yards. Finally I graduated to a real job: the graveyard shift at a printing plant setting up stacks of magazine sections for a long line of women who dropped them onto a moving clothesline, one section after another, to make up the magazine.
Wait, don’t stop reading. This isn’t going to be one of those stories about the virtues of hard work. I didn’t care about virtue in those days (except for being pretty interested in losing my own). What I cared about was gas money and the freedom it gave me. I tell the story of my industrious youth solely as a kind of CV for thinking about a question that has been on my mind lately. If I hadn’t gone to college, if I hadn’t left that printing plant, or the department store sales job that came after it, and if I had a son who wanted to follow in my footsteps, who wanted to be like his old man, what kind of work would I tell him to seek?
Of course I’d say, “Don’t be like me, go to college, raise yourself up,” but what if he didn’t want to? Or what if, for one reason or another, he couldn’t? He’d want to make gas money, then he’d want to make enough to have a family, maybe buy a little house, put something aside so his kids might go to college. In today’s economy, how could he do that?
Time was when you could follow your dad to the factory floor and make out okay. No more. Those jobs aren’t completely gone, but they are much less plentiful and many require advanced training. It’s not like when the country was growing like a strapping young man and all you had to do was show up and work hard.
Everyone says we’re becoming a service economy. Is that because we’re richer and can afford to purchase more services? Some of us are, but not most. Is it because we’re getting older and need more help with day to day life? Certainly the boomer bulge is aging. But here’s the question I have: if we’re seeking employment in the service sector, as opposed to making things to sell around the world, aren’t we sort of chasing our tails? I’ll come to your restaurant if you come to mine.
Technology is increasing productivity faster than ever. Unfortunately for those who want to work, the way it does that is by eliminating jobs. That frees up a lot of workers to go into services, but I’m not clear about where the money to consume those services will come from. It feels a bit like a ponzi scheme.
I suppose what I’d tell my son who didn’t or couldn’t go to college (and, increasingly, the one who was a liberal arts major) is that he should develop a skill that’s in demand. Be a nurse. Be a healthcare IT worker. Do something that not just anyone can do. Differentiate yourself. Education is one way to do that, but a skilled trade is another. If he said he just planned to knock around and see what turned up, do this and that, I’d have to tell him that wouldn’t be good enough anymore. There will be too much competition for unskilled jobs. You can’t make it in Christmas ribbons and paper routes anymore.