Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Businessweek Reports on “The Obsolete Jobs Club”, Whose Membership Just Keeps Growing

Remembering Professions of Bygone Days.

The announcement that Wal-Mart would end using greeters in some cases has produced an impulse to remember some of the other jobs that used to be around, but no longer are.  They are of interest because from the vantage point of hindsight it is hard to even imagine these jobs existed, or that anyone thought they would continue.  They are also of interest because they illustrate the problems with micro and macro factors in the economy.  Progress dictates that the old and inefficient professions give way to the new and more efficient.  But that progress can take a terrible toll on those who had those jobs.

Looking back at some of the professions from the vantage point of 2012, one job that stands out as having always been destined for replacement was elevator operators.  Who?  Yes, when elevators were installed in buildings the buildings hired men and women whose job it was to manually open the elevator doors, let people in, ask them the floor they wanted to go in, manually close the door, push the buttons and take people to their destination.  Obviously automated elevators were a huge efficiency improvement for the economy, freeing the work force to do more productive work.  But if running an elevator were all a person could do, the loss of that job was a personal tragedy.

There are a lot of other jobs that not only no longer exist, but are largely forgotten.  The job “switchboard operator” does not conjure up anything in a young person’s mind, except the question of “what’s a switchboard?”  Most people have heard the term “ticker tape parade” without knowing what ticker tape was, or who made and operated the machines that produced it.  A telegraph operator was an essential and highly skilled job at one time, as was telegraph delivery person.  The idea that tens of thousands of people were employed delivering ice and milk is an alien concept.

The point, in a modern, post manufacturing  economy people can expect to have multiple rather than single careers.  This means the economy must support education and training and flexibility, and unfortunately for the anti-government people this means that government, an effective and efficient government, must be part of current and future economic development.  The idea that the private sector alone can produce economic growth is a fallacy.

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