The Jobs Americans Do – The New York Times
Forget the images of men in hard hats standing before factory gates, of men with coal-blackened faces, of men perched high above New York City on steel beams. The emerging face of the American working class is a Hispanic woman who has never set foot on a factory floor. That’s not the kind of work much of the working class does anymore. Instead of making things, they are more often paid to serve people: to care for someone else’s children or someone else’s parents; to clean another family’s home.
The decline of the old working class has meant both an economic triumph for the nation and a personal tribulation for many of the workers. Technological progress has made American farms and factories more productive than ever, creating great wealth and cutting the cost of food and most other products. But the work no longer requires large numbers of workers. In 1900, factories and farms employed 60 percent of the work force. By 1950, a half-century later, those two sectors employed 36 percent. In 2014, they employed less than 10 percent.
For more than a century, since the trend was first documented, people have been prophesying a dire future in which the working class would no longer work. In 1964, a group of prominent liberals wrote President Johnson to warn of a “cybernation revolution” inexorably creating “a permanent impoverished and jobless class established in the midst of potential abundance.”
Machines have taken the jobs of millions of Americans, and there is every indication that the trend will continue. In October, Budweiser successfully tested a self-driving truck by delivering beer more than 120 miles to a warehouse in Colorado. In December, Amazon opened a small convenience store near its Seattle headquarters that has no cashiers. Customers — for now, Amazon employees only — are billed automatically as they leave the store. In January, Bank of America opened branches in Denver and Minneapolis that are staffed by a lone employee, A.T.M.s and video terminals. And Americans are making a growing share of purchases online: about 8.4 percent of retail sales in 2016. These changes are driven by consumer preferences, not just by corporate cost-cutting imperatives. People like shopping in bed in the middle of the night. People like that computers make fewer mistakes. And people grow accustomed to computers. A few years ago, I watched a woman walk up to a bank teller and ask where she could find an A.T.M. The teller asked if she could help. No, the woman said, she just needed to withdraw some money.
But the forecasters were wrong in the most important respect. Workers continue to find work, but now the jobs are in service. Taking care of aging baby boomers, in particular, has become by far the largest driver of job growth in the American economy. Among the occupations the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to grow most rapidly over the next decade: physical-therapy assistants, home health aides, occupational-therapy assistants, nurse practitioners, physical therapists, occupational-therapy aides, physician assistants. … You get the idea. Nine of the 12 fastest-growing fields are different ways of saying “nurse.”
In 1950, service work made up about 40 percent of working-class labor in the United States. By 2005, that share had climbed to 56 percent, according to data from a 2013 analysis by the economists David Autor at M.I.T. and David Dorn at the University of Zurich. The available evidence, Autor said, suggests that this trend has continued “very rapidly” over the last decade, increasing the share of American workers who work in the service industries.
The rise of service-sector employment reflects the fact that Americans on average have more money to spend and that we are spending relatively less of that money on physical goods, because those goods have become cheaper. It took 10.5 hours of work at average wages to buy a bicycle in 1979; it took just four hours in 2015. Most Americans don’t want a second and third bicycle, so that leaves more money for other purposes. And increasingly, the money is spent on services: help around the home, entertainment and vacations and, most of all, education and health care.
These jobs are difficult to mechanize or to perform with greater efficiency. Convalescents cannot be trained to eat more quickly. A phlebotomist cannot draw blood from two arms at once. Robots, as yet, cannot change diapers. Moreover, consumers may have an emotional investment in seeing this caring work performed by people rather than machines. They may be willing to pay for a personal touch.
Another limitation on our ability to program computers to do the work of people is summarized by the observation of the Hungarian scientist Michael Polanyi that “we can know more than we can tell.” Consider the work of a security guard, who is basically tasked with sounding the alarm if something doesn’t seem right. Technology improves security, but it is not easy to write a formula approximating intuition.
The Cassandras, however, were right to warn about poverty in the midst of abundance. Personal-service providers — “servants,” as they once were called — tend to be poorly paid. There is little job security; the benefits are meager; the work is physically demanding and emotionally draining. It is not particularly surprising that women and immigrants have been more likely to take these jobs than native-born men. For many of the caretaking service jobs, less than 10 percent of the work force is male.
The wages of service work increasingly determine the welfare of the American working class and, to a substantial degree, the broader economy. But politicians have paid little attention. That’s partly because Americans continue to view service work as a way station, not a way of life. Teenagers get their first job at McDonald’s; mothers dip back into the work force as receptionists; seniors make a little extra money as Walmart greeters. The reality is that these are the kinds of jobs millions of Americans hold for their entire working lives. And increasingly, these are the jobs their children will perform, too.
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