Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?

Third in a Series on 21st Century Economics, how men can liberate ourselves thereby,…
and the need and hopes for Social Efficiency

(c) 2013, Davd

Economic growth is “stagnant” today, in the patois of the radio news interviews; pension investments are not earning what their planners forecast, so now retirement income is uncertain; and my son the refrigeration mechanic assures me that modern fridges and freezers are less reliable than those made in the last century. I’m sure there are many and diverse other items of bad news that could be added to the list. The news we hear and read repeatedly contradicts a fundamental expectation of 20th (and 19th) Century economics: The Industrial Revolution was expected to give each generation better than their parents had. In this 21st Century, that’s not happening.

The 2013 Canadian Federal Budget speech stubbornly insisted that economic growth would resume, that money would go ’round more quickly in 2014 and 2015 and that thanks to economic growth, the 2015 budget would show a little more government income than expenditures. The Opposition leaders expressed doubts (as Opposition leaders usually do) and seemed at least as convincing, especially since the Budget specifics were few. And “New Brunswick,” an old province which serves the country by housing many more of the old and weak than of the most capable in proportion to its population, got no cost-of-living increase in transfer

The Industrial Revolution was expected to give each generation better than their parents had, but now that’s not happening.

Why not? The reasons are substantially ecological: The Industrial Revolution depended on cheap raw materials, and especially on cheap energy, that’s the biggest reason why not. That last sentence is “in the past
tense” because raw materials are no longer cheap. For instance, when i began driving, gasoline cost 19 cents per gallon1: Now it costs $1.33 or so per litre, which translates to $5.03 per US gallon and over $6 per Imperial gallon. There is no way that wages have gone up 25-30+ times over that same time span. As a former chief-economist (for a major bank) named Jeff Rubin, has been saying on tour with David Suzuki: “Feed [the economy] cheap oil and it runs like a charm; ration it expensive oil and it seizes up.” (CBC Radio Ideas, March 13.)

When i was a student, rockfish and goberge cost about 25-35 cents per pound; today, a pound of either fish will cost you $4-$10. The price of basic white fish has gone up at about the same rate, over the decades, as the price of gasoline!  Fish are supposed to be “a renewable resource”, while petroleum is “non-renewable”—what went wrong?

Basically, “what went wrong” is the second ecological reason jobs and the money economy aren’t what they used to be: The ratio of the human population to the productivity of the Earth—to Earth’s carrying capacity, in
Catton’s [1980] term—is at or near overload. There are at least twice as many people alive [and therefore, eating] today as there were when i was a student. The oceans have not got bigger; the capacity of this planet to produce fish has not increased and may have deceased; but the human “demand” for fish has at least doubled.

Non-renewable resources like oil are being used up; by now most of the best deposits of them are gone or
nearing exhaustion. Renewable resources like fish and timber are now “harvested” at or even above their rates of renewal; it takes more work to produce the same amount of either, than it took fifty or even twenty-five years ago. The price of food, clothing and shelter is higher relative to the wage level, than it used to be.

To use a recent example, my neighbour Smitty told me that five years ago, stove-pipe cost a dollar or two per foot. This year, it costs six dollars per foot, plus tax—the prices of iron and manufacturing energy (and of transporting the raw materials and the finished pipes; perhaps also the profit demands of the factory owners and the retailers) have at least tripled the cost of stove pipe in less than a decade. Wages haven’t risen one-tenth that fast—and now, for many jobs, they are actually falling not just in “purchasing power”, but
even in dollars.

Raw materials cost more because more work is required to get them from poorer sources, and because as more countries industrialize, more factory demand drives up the price. They cost more work to get because the best stocks have been exploited: From “fracking” for oil and ‘natural gas’ to mining lower-percentage ores of iron, gold, copper, and other minerals; to having no more old-growth forests to log or untouched fisheries to net; the costs of extracting raw materials and providing energy to transport and process them, is far higher than it was during the glory days of the job, back in the third quarter of the 20th Century.

The high pay of those mid-20th Century jobs came from raiding the storehouses of the Earth. It’s analogous to making wine or beer from a kit (or from your own crops, but a kit is a simpler example.) The concentrated malt syrup or grape juice is brought back to normal strength by adding water, and then you introduce the yeast. The yeast finds itself in what for a yeast, is Paradise: A sugar solution at the right strength to ferment. The yeast devours the sugar, turning it to ethyl alcohol and getting nourishment from the process. A  “population explosion” of yeast is part of the process; and of course, the sugar is consumed. As the sugar runs out and the alcohol and carbon dioxide (the gas that gives beer and champagne their bubbles)  accumulate, the yeast stops reproducing, and depending on how much alcohol it has produced, it goes dormant or dies2.

“The Industrial Revolution” began with inventions during the third quarter of the 17th Century3—about 200 years before “the glory days of the job”. The inventions turned coal—which had been used as heating fuel but not mechanical power—and petroleum, and later electricity, into “motor fuels”. Without the technology developed during that third quarter of the 17th Century, they were relatively neutral features of the earth; after the inventions, they were to developing industry as grape and malt sugars are to those yeasts. Much like the yeasts, industrialism devoured these new resources; and much like the sugar in a beer carboy or a wine vat, they were “nonrenewable.” (I don’t claim credit for this analogy; it came from Catton’s Overshoot [1980], and i believe he got it from an earlier source.)

Even the standing timber of an ancient forest (think Douglas fir, western red-cedar, Nootka yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, and Sequoias) or a salmon run whose size depends on its balance with predators and competitors as well as food species, has a sustainable harvest rate far lower than the rates at which these West Coast resources were harvested in the 20th Century. (The cod stocks of the Grand Banks were similarly over-exploited, beginning earlier in history.)

In human terms, since we’re supposed to be able to think and yeasts are not, you could even call it plunder. There is very little left to plunder, in the once great Coastal rain forests and semi-Mediterranean forests of BC, Washington, Oregon, and California; in the salmon runs that extended from Eureka [California] up the Oregon, Washington, BC and Alaska coasts, and now are too small to fish commercially in the southern part of that range; in the cod stocks of the Grand Banks; in the easy oil fields from Alberta to Texas; in the way of rich metal ores. One might say Capital and Labour plundered together and while they argued over the division of that plunder, both took in more than they could have done sustainably.

No plunder, no easy profits and high-paid jobs in the same business. Why the plunder happened during the past 200-300 years, was a matter of inventions which made it possible to profit from raw materials which before then, were relatively neutral features of the earth’s crust and what grew on it.  There was no need to plunder; but capitalism is a powerful way to quickly exploit opportunities, and Soviet “socialism” did much the same thing. Young men today are somewhat justified in damning that plunder and those who did it—but cursing won’t undo the plundering.

If exhaustion of cheap raw materials has made industrial manufacturing and its products more expensive, it has had less effect on the old craft trades that depended on, indeed consisted of, highly skilled labour done by strong and accurately guided human muscles. These trades are traditional men’s strengths; they do not provide a fast road to riches but they do provide a means of subsistence for a family household (to which the other household members can contribute when there is especially much work to be done—something seldom if ever allowed in job employment.)

Farming was the largest of these trades before the Industrial Revolution, in that the number of farms was much more than the number of blacksmith-shops, carpenter-shops, chimney-sweeps, fishing boats, logging crews [of 2-3 men and 1-2 horses], plasterers, stone-masons, teamsters, weavers [a trade women also followed, though the heaviest looms tended to require men’s strength], or of any of the others. Today there are a few new trades, including concrete finisher, electrician, motor-vehicle mechanic, and welder.

The skilled-muscle trades were generally at an economic disadvantage while cheap fuels and large rich ore bodies gave mass production and long-distance hauling a temporary subsidy; but much of the disadvantage was temporary.  Mass-production fits best with mass extraction of raw materials and mass transport of raw materials and intermediate and finished goods. Craft tradesmen tend to work alone or in small groups and fit best with small-scale raw material extraction4. As massive industrial sources of raw materials become rarer and-or more costly to access, and as smaller scale production technologies develop, the mass advantage is ending and might even reverse.

Land degradation, and in the case of forest land, “stand” degradation as well, have been widely acknowledged. Farming as a craft tends to improve rather than degrade land; and ecoforestry, which is capable of restoring forest lands and stands, is a craft rather like traditional farming. The very maintenance of renewable resource productivity depends on craft stewardship replacing Industrial Revolution  exploitation.

The skilled-muscle trades “are coming back”, and somewhat improved by the technologies that accompanied industrialism. They will not grow in numbers as fast, nor to as great a total, as “good jobs” did in the third quarter of the 20th Century; because they are not subsidized as “nonrenewable resources” subsidized industrialism. They will, i predict, offer the best opportunities for young men in the first half of the 21st: They will pay less in money and more in quality of life than the “good jobs” of the last century, and likely pay more in both than most of the available jobs of this one.

Where have all the good jobs gone? Some are being done by automated machinery. Some have been replaced
by not-as-good jobs in foreign enterprises, which is the main theme CBC Radio’s The Current found when examining this week’s bank scandal; its buzz name is “offshoring”.  Some continue to exist on less generous terms (especially, less pay relative to the cost of living and lesser pension benefits.) Some have been changed for the worse but still have their old names (which is what old colleagues wrote me about professorships such as i left in 1990.)

More generally, the largest single reason the jobs available in 2013 don’t average nearly as good as those available in 1963 or even 1983, is that the industrial economies no longer enjoy abundant, cheap raw  materials, and especially, abundant cheap oil. The second largest reason is human population growth. The means to pay workers well and put them to more pleasant work, that were relatively ample in 1963, derived from a smaller population and greater abundance.

The 21st is an “after abundance” century5.  Social, economic. and political tactics appropriate to times of
resource abundance and continued economic growth, are quite likely to do more harm than good. “Get a job”, as advice or as a personal purpose, represents such a tactic.

To repeat: Young men can fairly reasonably expect to live on wages, but should not try to support a family from wages unless they have an especially high-paid profession or trade. Even then it’s a a risky “bet” (which it was not, 50 years ago.) Many writers have warned young men of the dangers of civil marriage as revised under Feminist lobbying pressure. This “post” and the last are warning young men—and women—of the dangers of depending on an “Industrial Revolution” economics which has lost its basis for continued growth.

If we look at “who’s still hiring”, it’s not encouraging; and methinks that will be worth describing in a future “post”.

Meanwhile, don’t believe promises of economic growth. Remember the wine yeasts. For another crude but
perhaps instructive analogy, animals grow by eating a lot; and those with less to eat, grow less. “Industrial economies” haven’t the abundance of feedstock to grow like they did two generations ago. If you want to prosper, efficiency is a better strategy than plunder.

That’s a hint. .. which i’m working to develop for another future post.


Catton, William R., Jr. 1976 “Why the future isn’t what it used to be (and how it could be made worse than it has to be.)” Social Science Quarterly 57: (September) 276-291

Catton, William R., Jr. 1980 Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana, London, and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Paperback 1982

CBC Radio-1 Ideas, March 13 2013. Broadcst of a presentation made by Jeff Rubin and David Suzuki at the Calgary Public Library, as part of their national tour to disabuse Canadians of false expectations of  long term economic growth.


*The folk song with the same rhythm goes Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing,
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago;
Where have all the flowers gone, young girls picked them every one;
When will they ever learn—o’ when will they, ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing,
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago;
Where have all the young girls gone, after the young men, every one;
When will they ever learn—o’ when will they, ever learn?

Where have all the young men gone, long time passing,
Where have all the young men gone, long time ago;
Where have all the young men gone, gone to be soldiers, every one;
When will they ever learn—o’ when will they, ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing,
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago;
Where have all the soldiers gone, gone to the graveyards, every one;
When will they ever learn—o’ when will they, ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing,
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago;
Where have all the graveyards gone, gone to flowers, every one;
When will they ever learn—o’ when will they, ever learn?

Not exactly an ecological cycle, but perhaps enough like one to make a useful analogy….

1. which would have translated to 5 cents per litre, if Canada had been metric at the time.

2. Beer, at the Canadian alcohol content range of 5% ±2%, does not kill the yeast; so when beer is bottled and i add a scant teaspoon of sugar to each pint, the yeast revives enough to produce more CO2, which “carbonates” the beer.

3. Watt’s steam engine was constructed in 1765 (Wells, 1961: 685) and that event is often named as marking the beginning of the “Industrial Revolution”. Wells continues: “By 1800 the change-over of industry from a small-scale businesswith small employers to a large-scale operation with big employers was well in progress.”(ibid.) I cite Wells because his is perhaps the most widely published and accessibly written major world-story book… and i have a copy.

4. In the case of renewable resources, “harvesting” is often said and written instead of “extraction”.

5. What could restore abundance, i have read more than once, would be a disaster that killed a large majority of the human population without doing much damage to the earth’s ecosystems. A plague might do that; a nuclear war would do far too much damage to the ecosystems. I mention this to deter quibbling and to point out that the fast road to abundance such as that of 1950-75, is a horrible one.

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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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