Any job that's even slightly routine is disappearing from the U.S. But this doesn't mean we are left with fewer jobs. It means only that we have fewer routine jobs, including traditional manufacturing. When the U.S. economy gets back on track, many routine jobs won't be returning--but new jobs will take their place. A quarter of all Americans now work in jobs that weren't listed in the Census Bureau's occupation codes in 1967. Technophobes, neo-Luddites and anti-globalists be warned: You're on the wrong side of history. You see only the loss of old jobs. You're overlooking all the new ones.At the risk of standing on the "wrong side of history," I would like to express grave doubts about a civilization in which most people do "symbolic analytic" work. I think that the farther any job is from making something or helping someone, the less satisfying it will be for most people. Sure, the people who design iPods have valuable jobs that probably satisfy them, but that is a few hundred people making something used by tens of millions. Not many jobs there. Anyone who has ever worked in the average design shop knows that most design -- along with most advertising, public relations, and half a dozen other fields -- is a tedious exercise in continually reinventing the wheel, clotted with jargon and silly fads, in which trying to seem impressive and "sharp" wars with a deep cynicism. In my experience, few people who design things like tissue paper boxes and corporate publicity campaigns feel very good about what they do. Reich doesn't mention bureaucrats, another major growing field full of cynicism and siege mentality. Research science sounds like an exciting field, but I know several people who have dropped out of scientific work because what they did was so bureaucratic, repetitive, and irrelevant. One of them loves steam railroads and longs for the days when high technology was what the boys could hammer together down in the shop. And one of the fastest growing fields is legal services, which is, as far as I am concerned, much more of a drain on our civilization than a benefit.
The reason they're so easy to overlook is that so much of the new value added is invisible. A growing percent of every consumer dollar goes to people who analyze, manipulate, innovate and create. These people are responsible for research and development, design and engineering. Or for high-level sales, marketing and advertising. They're composers, writers and producers. They're lawyers, journalists, doctors and management consultants. I call this "symbolic analytic" work because most of it has to do with analyzing, manipulating and communicating through numbers, shapes, words, ideas.
Symbolic-analytic work can't be directly touched or held in your hands, as goods that come out of factories can be. In fact, many of these tasks are officially classified as services rather than manufacturing. Yet almost whatever consumers buy these days, they're paying more for these sorts of tasks than for the physical material or its assemblage. On the back of every iPod is the notice "Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China." You can bet iPod's design garners a bigger share of the iPod's purchase price than its assembly.
I was very impressed by this essay, by a man who gave up work in a think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop. I would personally rather work in a think tank, but there are millions of people who want to do something that feels real to them. How many designers, marketers, or assistant vice presidents feel the kind of pride and sense of identity that thousands of steel mill workers used to get from being "men of steel"? Yes, I know their work killed them and poisoned the planet, but it still had a reality and solidity that "symbolic" work will never have from most people.
I have ended up complaining a lot on the blog about modern work. And not, as I have said, because I hate my own job. I rather like my job. But much about our current work culture feels poisonous to me, and I think we should be trying harder to fix that instead of just letting things run along in their current rut until we wake up hating our world.