I don’t know how many times I’ve seen liberal commentators look back with nostalgia to the days when a young man fresh out of high school or military service could get a well-paying job on an assembly line at a unionized auto factory that could carry him through to a comfortable retirement.
As it happens, I grew up in Detroit and for a time lived next door to factory workers. And I know something that has eluded the liberal nostalgiacs. Which is that people hated those jobs.
The assembly-line work was boring and repetitive. That’s because management imbibed Frederick W. Taylor’s theories that workers were stupid and could not be trusted with any initiative.
It was also because the thousands of pages of work rules in United Auto Workers contract, which forbade assembly-line speedups, also barred any initiative or flexible response.
That’s why the UAW in 1970 staged a long strike against General Motors to give workers the option of early retirement, 30-and-out. All those guys who had gotten assembly line jobs at 18 or 21 could quit at 48 or 51.
The only problem was that when they retired they lost their health insurance. So the UAW got the Detroit Three auto companies to pay for generous retiree health benefits that covered elective medical and dental procedures with little or no co-payments.
It was those retiree health benefits more than anything else that eventually drove General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy and into ownership by the government and the UAW.
The liberal nostalgiacs would like to see an economy that gives low-skill high school graduates similar opportunities. That’s what Barack Obama seems to be envisioning when he talks about hundreds of thousands of “green jobs.”
But those “green jobs” have not come into existence despite massive government subsidies and crony capitalism. It’s become apparent that the old Detroit model was unsustainable and cannot be revived even by the most gifted community organizer and adjunct law professor.
For one thing, in a rapidly changing and technologically advanced economy, the lifetime job seems to be a thing of the past. Particularly “lifetime” jobs where you work only 30 years and then get supported for the next 30 or so years of your life.
Today’s young people can’t expect to join large organizations and in effect ride escalators for the rest of their careers. The new companies emerging as winners in high tech — think Apple or Google — just don’t employ that many people, at least in the United States.
Similarly, today’s manufacturing firms produce about as large a share of the gross national product as they used to with a much smaller percentage of the labor force.
Moreover, there’s evidence that recent growth in some of the professions — the law, higher education — has been a bubble, and is about to burst.
The bad news for the Millennial generation that is entering its work years is that the economy of the future won’t look like the economy we’ve grown accustomed to. The “hope and change” that Barack Obama promised hasn’t produced much more than college loans that will be hard to pay off and a health care law that lets them stay on Mommy and Daddy’s health insurance till they’re 26.
The good news is that information technology provides the iPod/Facebook generation with the means to find work and create careers that build on their own personal talents and interests.
As Walter Russell Mead writes in his brilliant the-american-interest.com blog, “The career paths that (young people) have been trained for are narrowing, and they are going to have to launch out in directions they and their teachers didn’t expect. They were bred and groomed to live as house pets; they are going to have to learn to thrive in the wild.”
But, as Mead continues, “The future is filled with enterprises not yet born, jobs that don’t yet exist, wealth that hasn’t been created, wonderful products and life-altering service not yet given form.”
As Jim Manzi argues in his new book “Uncontrolled,” we can’t predict what this new work world will look like. It will be invented through trial and error.
What we can be sure of is that creating your own career will produce a stronger sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Young people who do so won’t hate their work the way those autoworkers hated those assembly line jobs.