Manufacturing jobs were a huge part of America’s post-World War II economic miracle.
In the early 1980’s, 20 million Americans worked in factories, assembling consumer products like cars and appliances.
Well, what happened after that?
There are two narratives here. The shorter story arc is about globalization. American corporations moved all the old manufacturing jobs off-shore to relatively poor countries that still had OK education systems (like China).
This is the story that most people think of when they realize that, as of 2017, your average high school graduate can no longer own a home and raise a family on a single income.
But there’s a second narrative?—?one that arcs back centuries, to 1794 when Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin. This story’s plot is more complicated, and has quite a few twists that have yet to unfold. It goes something like this: technology keeps making individual workers much, much more productive than they ever were before.
And when one worker?—?with the help of a robot army?—?can do what used to require 100 workers… well, you don’t need 100 workers anymore. You just need one.