By Binyamin Appelbaum.
Popular ideas about the working class are woefully out of date. Here are nine people who tell a truer story of what the American work force does today — and will do tomorrow.
Forget the images of men in hard hats standing before factory gates, of men with coal-blackened faces, of men perched high above New York City on steel beams. The emerging face of the American working class is a Hispanic woman who has never set foot on a factory floor. That’s not the kind of work much of the working class does anymore. Instead of making things, they are more often paid to serve people: to care for someone else’s children or someone else’s parents; to clean another family’s home.
The decline of the old working class has meant both an economic triumph for the nation and a personal tribulation for many of the workers. Technological progress has made American farms and factories more productive than ever, creating great wealth and cutting the cost of food and most other products. But the work no longer requires large numbers of workers. In 1900, factories and farms employed 60 percent of the work force. By 1950, a half-century later, those two sectors employed 36 percent. In 2014, they employed less than 10 percent.
For more than a century, since the trend was first documented, people have been prophesying a dire future in which the working class would no longer work. In 1964, a group of prominent liberals wrote President Johnson to warn of a “cybernation revolution” inexorably creating “a permanent impoverished and jobless class established in the midst of potential abundance.”
Machines have taken the jobs of millions of Americans, and there is every indication that the trend will continue. In October, Budweiser successfully tested a self-driving truck by delivering beer more than 120 miles to a warehouse in Colorado. In December, Amazon opened a small convenience store near its Seattle headquarters that has no cashiers. Customers — for now, Amazon employees only — are billed automatically as they leave the store. In January, Bank of America opened branches in Denver and Minneapolis that are staffed by a lone employee, A.T.M.s and video terminals. And Americans are making a growing share of purchases online: about 8.4 percent of retail sales in 2016. These changes are driven by consumer preferences, not just by corporate cost-cutting imperatives. People like shopping in bed in the middle of the night. People like that computers make fewer mistakes. And people grow accustomed to computers. A few years ago, I watched a woman walk up to a bank teller and ask where she could find an A.T.M. The teller asked if she could help. No, the woman said, she just needed to withdraw some money.
But the forecasters were wrong in the most important respect. Workers continue to find work, but now the jobs are in service. Taking care of aging baby boomers, in particular, has become by far the largest driver of job growth in the American economy. Among the occupations the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to grow most rapidly over the next decade: physical-therapy assistants, home health aides, occupational-therapy assistants, nurse practitioners, physical therapists, occupational-therapy aides, physician assistants. … You get the idea. Nine of the 12 fastest-growing fields are different ways of saying “nurse.”