Sunday, March 28, 2010

Vanished Occupations

I was looking at a "most e-mailed" story on the NPR website entitled, The Jobs of Yesteryear: Obsolete Occupations.  The NPR feature is a combination of old photos, text, and audio clips from people who used to do the work.

And what are the Obsolete Occupations?  Lector, Elevator Operator, Copy Boy, Pinsetter, River Driver, Iceman, Lamplighter, Milkman, Switchboard Operator, Typist in a Typing Pool, Typesetter, and Telegraph Operator.  All of these jobs were displaced by a combination of technology and changing society.  The article makes clear that you can still find some of these jobs in small specialty niches or in different parts of the world.

I can remember as a kid living in East Lansing, Michigan that our milkman came around with a horse-drawn milk wagon.  Lest you think I am that old, this was a gimmick on the part of the delivery service to attract business.  Still, I did get to see at least one older way in which technology was practiced.  I can remember hearing the horse and wagon coming, grabbing a carrot or apple for the horse, and racing out the door to see who would get there first.  On one occasion I won the foot race with my brother and presented a nice carrot to the horse.  But even horses can apparently have "bad days at the office" because after sniffing the carrot the horse turned his head and bit me on the shoulder.  My love of horses ended at that moment.

Of course, any list like the one in NPR story begs the question of what the Obsolete Occupations will be fifty years from now?  So here are a few of my predictions.  Add your own (you might even include your own job in the list):

  • Pharmacists for routine prescriptions
  • Bank tellers
  • Retail store checkout clerks
  • Telephone repairmen
  • Toll collectors for highways and bridges
  • Fast food customer clerks
  • Automobile transmission repair specialists
  • Oil change mechanics
The key to all of these is to think about automation or obsolete technology.  But our ability to project something like this accurately is more limited than we might think at first blush.  The reasons we may need certain jobs can change for reasons other than automation.  Take the milkman or grocery-man for an example.  In our neighborhood, a start-up company called Simon Delivers has been carving out a niche to deliver complete grocery orders to busy families where both spouses work and don't want to hassle with the grocery store.  The need being filled is not limited mobility as it was in the past but limited time.  There are a number of these types of small niche innovators who are capturing an unmet need, but these are the minority.  The bigger picture is inexorably towards automation replacing people.  

So what should the high school guidance counselors suggest?  Any job in which automation is not likely to be a factor in the near future:  physician, nurse, dentist, dental hygienist, lawyer, engineer, writer, actor, and many more.  Just think "brain power."  This also is why we need to get everyone educated beyond a high school diploma.  The jobs which not only pay, but are even there, will take brains, lots of brains.  

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