Boomers’ Labor Love Lost

The American workforce has changed dramatically since the Baby Boomer generation came of age. In our day the country was predominantly based on a manufacturing economy. The advent of technology, communications and globalization has altered the landscape for the generations that followed. As a result, there are occupations that were common when boomers were growing up that are either gone or disappearing in the present day.

Mister Boomer has discussed home milk delivery in the past, and the milkman (Home Delivery). A uniformed man driving a truck dedicated to delivering dairy products from a specific local dairy has pretty much disappeared. Convenience stores and supermarkets open 24 hours a day, and online food delivery have taken its place, though technology didn’t play that much of a roll in the change. Rather, a shift in the way of life is the cause — milkmen could delivery to the homes of Baby Boomers because moms were there full-time, and, without a second family car, they couldn’t easily get to a store to purchase the dairy staples the family would need every day. Now families most often have two working parents and two cars, so a stop on the way home from work is a better lifestyle fit than home delivery.

Likewise, Mister B has talked about gas station attendants and soda jerks. People just don’t live the same way as when we grew up. On occasion you’ll find an old-fashioned drug store with a soda jerk dishing up sundaes and milk shakes, or a full-service gas station eager to check your oil or wash your windshield, but these are rare and becoming rarer.

From personal observation, Mister Boomer will add bank tellers and store cashiers to the list. There is hardly a bank anywhere that doesn’t prefer that people use ATMs, or bank online. Neither of these commonplace technological marvels existed in our boomer days. A large percentage of retail stores have taken that model as their own and have installed self-service check-out stations. In both cases the companies don’t have to pay a person, with benefits, to do what machines — or customers themselves — now accomplish on their own.

Several articles in national publications delved into this subject of disappearing occupations, and two jobs categories in particular hit home for Mister Boomer: data entry and typists, and skilled factory labor. In both cases, technology and globalization are most responsible for the demise of the jobs. The reason these struck a chord with Mister B is that his parents used to work in those fields.

When Mister B and his siblings were all safely ensconced in high school, his mother went back to work. She had attended a trade school and became a keypunch operator, first for an insurance company, then a bank. A keypunch operator would “type” on a keyboard that would punch rectangular holes into cardboard cards. Stacks of keypunched cards were fed into a computer. In essence, she was a data entry worker. By the time the ’60s became the ’70s, keypunch had become a thing of the past as direct entry to computer databases eliminated the extra step. So Mister Boomer’s family saw directly how technology was changing work in American families.

Likewise, typing pools — or secretary pools — were common fixtures in offices from the 1920s through the 1960s. The pools were mostly made up of women who were employed to transcribe everything from letters to business proposals, contracts to manuals. Women could be utilized from the common pool, thus keeping them in a position where they were paid less, and were expendable should the company run into financial difficulty. Word processors and typists are now disappearing occupations as every worker is responsible for typing his or her own letters, proposals and the like.

Mister Boomer’s father, and most of his uncles, spent their lives in factories as machinists. These were skilled jobs that commanded great pay and benefits if you were lucky enough to be employed in a union shop. Mister Boomer’s father was not employed by union shops. Beginning in the 1970s, technology filtered into manufacturing plants in all forms. Robotics began taking over some jobs; first slowly, then accelerating as the decade wore on. In Mister Boomer’s father’s case, new, computer-operated machines were taking over the by-hand skill he had practiced for the previous 30 years. Through the prodding of younger management, he retired much earlier than he had originally intended.

Also on the list of disappearing occupations is the postal worker. We’ve been hearing for years that sending letters and business direct mail has dramatically waned with the advance of e-mail and overnight delivery services. This was once so much the bulk of the postal business that in the 1940s and early 1950s, postal workers delivered mail to homes twice a day. Couple decreased usage with the addition of technology in the form of sorting machines and the postal worker has become an endangered species.

Mister Boomer himself, like most of his friends, had a stint in a factory one summer during his college years. The work was tough, but the extra pay helped pay his way through college. Today the company he worked for no longer exists, but if it did, chances are robots would be doing the production-line job he once held.

As another Labor Day is celebrated, it is proper and just that we recall the hard work and dedicated service our parents — and our own generation — put into shaping the current state of today’s workforce. While the rate of jobs that are disappearing continues to grow, Mister Boomer can’t help but think that the same situation occurred for our grandparents. Yet as businesses related to horses and wagons were being replaced by cars, and oil lamps by electricity, new businesses were created that set the stage for their children’s generation to grow. Now that the world is only a live feed or text away, let us hope that the next generation will continue to be able to salute the workers who helped them create the World of Tomorrow we could hardly imagine.

Happy Labor Day, and thanks for your hard work, boomers!