I’m generally suspicious of prognosticators and gurus, whether they’re predicting the end of books or the end of the world. I don’t worry about things ending, nor do I fear change. Some bad trends can be reversed and are. But I do think about the impact change has on people and communities.
For example, I think about businesses and jobs that are going away and about how for many the new jobs emerging from technology are inaccessible.
But more often I think about our disappearing downtowns. When I was young in Morrisville, there were three food markets, a hardware store, two department stores, an appliance and a jewelry store, a newsstand, bakery, two movie theaters, and three drugstores each with soda fountains.
The first great retail flight from downtown came with the Interstate and malls. The second is happening now with the rapid rise of online retail. The much-feared big-box stores, however, are becoming little more than showrooms for cheaper online purchases. The smart chains are vying to become same-day fulfillment centers for those online sales. Malls like Williston may in time be windowless warehouses, perhaps with a display area.
Towns like Morrisville are left with a chain grocery store or two, a chain drugstore, local restaurants, a motel, and an automated cinema – alive but hardly thriving and all on the strip.
Perhaps the most pernicious effect of chains stores is that, while they fulfill immediate community needs like food, drugs and sundries, they only add to the flight of capital, as none are locally owned and their business model is predicated on low wages and minimal benefits — think Walmart – imported goods and exported capital.
Another retail trend is the migration in consumer spending from goods to services. In 1970, 70% of our expendable income was spent on goods and 30% on services. That ratio has now inverted. Although we still use local craft tradesmen, most of our telecommunication, energy, and media services are from multinationals. E-commerce and piracy have wiped out the record store and are threatening the survival of local bookstores, newspapers and movie theaters. A major employer, higher education, is also on the cusp of significant change. Only healthcare, the second largest employer in Vermont, is a growth industry.
Another disturbing trend is how the polarization of wealth is mirrored in the polarization of job opportunity. There are three robust tiers in job creation. First, the jobs Americans won’t do: milking cows, picking fruit, busing tables, slaughtering chickens, and cleaning toilets. Second, the low-paying jobs that the working poor must take as waitstaff, warehouse workers, and retail clerks. The third is the high-skilled jobs employers can’t fill. Our factories are either overseas or automating.
New businesses will arise, colleges will meet the challenge, but there will be many gaps in between and some will fall through the cracks, especially in small towns where jobs are largely gone, affordable cars are inversely priced to their gas consumption, and healthcare and energy prices keep rising. We will need to pay close attention to our neighbors.