Saturday, July 07, 2018

What were some jobs that existed 50 years ago but have largely disappeared today?

We often hear that we're in a time of change, but this observation isn't really news. We've been in a time of change for my whole lifetime, and well before that. Many jobs that once existed are no longer available, and many have even disappeared from memory.

We were challenged recently to recall some jobs that have disappeared in the past 50 years, and it was great fun reading all the answers, many of which described jobs I once held back in my youth. I go back a bit more than 50 years, though, so I have a few more to add.

The first, most obvious omission that popped into my mind was the iceman. In the 1930s, my family had an icebox (not a refrigerator, but an actual box that held a block of ice). The iceman’s horse-drawn wagon would come around and be surrounded by us kids, hoping to get free shards of ice caused when he cut up little blocks to fit our iceboxes.

Another job only briefly mentioned was typesetting. I never held that job, but I was trained for manual typesetting for a semester in high school. At least I know where terms like upper-case and lower-case come from.

Someone also mentioned keypunch operator, a task (not a job) that was often done by prisoners who were literally chained to their keypunch machines. What wasn't mentioned, however, were key verifier operators. Not many people today have ever seen a verifier machine, let alone even know what one was.

Even before my time, there were jobs that disappeared, but which I read about in a nineteenth century book about jobs for women. The final two chapters in the book were about a couple of sure-fire women’s jobs for the future (1900 was then the future).

First chapter was about telegraph operators. The chapter “proved” that there was a great future for women because they could operate a telegraph key at least as fast as men (and the telephone had yet to be invented).

Second chapter was about picture tinters. There was, of course, no color photography, and it wasn’t really even conceived of. Women were supposedly much better at coloring photos because of their “artistic bent” and their more delicate hands. Though there are a few photo tinters still around today for special jobs, it’s not a career with a great future.

It's fun to think about these forgotten jobs, but they're also a source of important knowledge, or perhaps even wisdom. Job disappearance is not some new phenomenon caused by computers. It's always gone on through history. True, some jobs lasted a long time, so long that they were passed down from generation to generation, even becoming family names, such as Smith, Turner, Eisenhower, Baker, and Miller. (See, for example, <Meaning of Surnames> for hundreds of examples)

Some of those jobs still exist, though often modified by new technology. Do you still recognize Fuller, Chandler, or Ackerman? And many others have largely disappeared, remaining only in some special niche, like photo tinters. Do you know anybody named Armbruster who still makes crossbows? Well, you probably know a few Coopers, but how many of them still make barrels?

So, what's the lesson for your own future? If you're as old as I am, you probably don't have to worry about your job disappearing, but even my "job" as a writer is changing rapidly with new technology. Even if your type of job doesn't disappear entirely, you will be faced with changes.

I think your preparation for job changes will be the same as your preparation for changed jobs: increased adaptability. Today's market tends to reward specialization, but when you become totally specialized, you become the victim of change. Think what's happened to all those COBOL experts from a few years ago.

I'd suggest that you take advantage of the rewards of specialization but invest a small percentage of your time to learning something new. Always. Keep you mind flexible for a future none of us can predict.

p.s. Minutes after I posted this blog, several readers wrote:

Your first job, "computer" did also disappear. How long was that job around? (Kind of surprised you did not mention it in the blog post.)
Well, that's shows I'm a human being. What's that saying about shoemakers' children going barefuot? It never occurred to me to consider my 'computer' job as disappearing, but of course it has been largely taken over by machines. Thanks, readers.

Oh, and some more, including switchboard operator, another job I had.

Maybe you folks could add more via comments here.

No comments: