October 15, 1995 in Business

The Price Of Progress Paid In Lost Jobs

Frank Bartel The Spokesman-Revie
 

Just 25 years ago, the average American bread winner - white collar or blue - earned a family wage.

And there was one bread winner per household.

The Spokane newspapers paid reporters well enough that, though my wife stayed home like others and cared for our five kids, we designed a dream home and hired a contractor to build it.

That’s the way the economy worked for most of us back then. Solid.

But some can remember when the standard of living on one paycheck took a sudden turn for the worse in the 1960s.

Food is a big budget item for large families, especially one with four ravenous boys like mine. Dairy and cattle and feedlot operators didn’t like the prices they received. So they poured out milk and slaughtered cows and calves.

About the same time, the weather conspired to create shortages in one crop after another - coffee, sugar, vegetables, fresh produce.

Prices went berserk. Producers denied profiteering. So middlemen must have gotten richer. Because prices never did come back down.

To make matters worse, cleaning up the environment drove the cost of everything sky high. Great Society social programs jacked taxes higher and higher. Big government grew by leaps and bounds.

To make ends meet, I resigned from the newspaper and took a public relations job with Kaiser Aluminum at double the pay. The very first day, midway through a reception welcoming us aboard, my wife drew me aside and asked me to quit.

She couldn’t accept the corporate culture and my new place in it. Already, neither could I. But I asked for a year to try and effect change.

Exactly 365 days later, I turned my back on corporate PR, returned to journalism, took a huge cut in pay. My wife got a job. And we became a two-paycheck family.

Over the 25 intervening years, the average middle-American worker has been buffeted by wave upon wave of automation, computerization, consolidation, cost cutting, restructuring, downsizing, and globalization.

Journalists are paid well in this city. But for many others, the reward for achieving so much progress is that work isn’t worth doing anymore. Welfare pays better.

Admittedly the above short history of work suffers from a limited, personal perspective. But a new study by the Pace Group of Tupelo, Miss., for the Spokane Area Economic Development Council helps round out the picture.

An overriding need to develop quality workers educated to compete at a global level is the central focus of the study.

But the report also puts into context and helps to explain the experiences of more-mature workers. And it sheds light on the future of labor.

For example, during previous waves of the Industrial Revolution, automation created new jobs, mostly in services, for displaced factory workers. But no more.

Since the advent of the Knowledge Era, only one-third of displaced manufacturing laborers have found service jobs. And just one in five earns even 80 percent of what they did in manufacturing.

“In 1991,” says the report, “75 percent of American workers were accepting lower wages (inflation adjusted) than in 1981.” Again, that’s three-fourths of the work force earning less than 10 years ago.

“Technology and productivity advances are now emerging in other job sectors, most notably in services,” the report continues. “And displacements similar to those that occurred in manufacturing are anticipated in these sectors.

“During the last decade alone, 3 million ‘white collar’ jobs have been eliminated through ‘re-engineering.’

“It is estimated,” the report goes on, “that only 5 percent of American companies have instituted productivity improvements. And 75 percent of the current work force is engaged in repetitive activities representing 90 million workers.

“These activities are subject to elimination through technology,” the report says. “The Wall Street Journal estimates the potential annual job displacement at between 1 million and 2.5 million workers!”

But that’s not the worst, the report says.

“By the year 2025,” it says, “only 2 percent of the work force will be required to produce all goods used by all people.”

What then?

The report doesn’t say.

, DataTimes MEMO: Associate Editor Frank Bartel’s column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Frank Bartel The Spokesman-Review

Associate Editor Frank Bartel’s column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Frank Bartel The Spokesman-Review


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