From Unemployment to Entrepreneurship

CHICAGO – It is well known that manufacturing employment has declined significantly in the United States, owing to the rise of manufacturing in developing countries like Mexico and China. But few recognize similar drops in other sectors, despite such trends’ far-reaching economic, social, and political implications.

Since 1972, the number of telephone operators has fallen by 82%, typists by 80%, secretaries by 60%, and bookkeepers by 50%. Moreover, during the Great Recession, office and administrative jobs declined by 8%, production and craft jobs fell by 17%, and the number of positions for machine operators, fabricators, and laborers dropped by 15%. Employment in all other occupations either remained unchanged or grew.

Manufacturing occupations and administrative support used to employ millions. But technological advances have enabled many of these middle-class jobs to be automated or moved offshore – a process that is expected to accelerate with growing automation of knowledge-based activities and advances in robotics.

In theory, workers can adapt to these changes by seeking employment in occupations that include non-routine tasks, which cannot be computerized or robotized (at least not in the foreseeable future). These include highly paid positions like managers and technicians, as well as relatively low-paid jobs in protective and personal services, food preparation, and cleaning, but few “middle-skill” occupations.