By Jim Bright
When does an occupation become obsolete? Invariably the answer is when the job is uneconomic. If workers in the occupation can no longer make a living, or their employers can no longer make a profit, it is curtains for the occupation.
The trouble is that profits fluctuate and the lean times might give way to future bountiful returns. This can lead to occupations being prematurely mothballed.
If you have watched Kes, Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, you’d be aware of the closure of UK coal mines in the 1960s to 1980s. In the 1980s, the argument was that Polish coal was cheaper. Similarly, Cornish tin mines that had operated since the early Bronze Age were all gone by 1998.
But not so fast – plans are now well advanced to reopen a mine at South Crofty in Cornwall in 2026. A 28-year closure seems trivial when considered against a history beginning around 2000BC. But not if you are a shareholder, I suppose.
While mining, and coal mining in particular, is becoming less tenable due to environmental concerns reflected in increasingly stringent government policy, the issue of the loss to society of skills and savvy when occupations disappear is an issue.
Beyond environmental concerns that are translated into economic policies, technology, automation and now generative artificial intelligence have the potential to tip the economic scales and to threaten occupations.
The economic imperative frequently drives political decisions to abandon or subsidise different industries. We no longer have a large-scale car manufacturing industry, for instance. It is clearly not as important to government as submarine manufacturing.
Societal pressures also can influence the fate of an occupation. It is not just about saving money, consumer fashion and taste can be critically important.
Often consumer choice is influenced by marketing strategies and social influencers. Interestingly, this can work to both hurry the extinction of some jobs, but it can also work to preserve or bring back others.
Vinyl records are a case in point. First records were slayed by the compact disc – “you can spread jam on them and they still work”. The vinyl world retreated to beardy old men shuffling around low-rent shops and community hall record fairs. Then streaming came along. That killed off CDs.
However, vinyl is now enjoying a resurgence. This year, it outsold CDs for the first time since 1987. This has been driven by not only fashion, but an increasing recognition that music curated by a robot, and then mysteriously removed from your playlist due to expiring copyright deals, is soulless.
The problem now is that the supporting infrastructure for vinyl records has also been lost. Many are experiencing long delays in getting their vinyl pressed as there is a global (and local) shortage of pressing factories, and their capacity is almost fully absorbed by releases from the mega-stars. It is a far cry from being able to walk into a local store and cut a record in the mid-20th century.
In other areas, there has been consumer pushback due to preference, or a sense of social justice to preserve jobs under threat. Many people actively choose to have their groceries checked out by a paid employee rather than a machine, for instance.
When society chooses to lose an occupation, it is not only the occupants who lose their jobs. We risk losing a complex infrastructure and all the knowledge, skills and culture associated with the occupation. This has the potential to decimate local communities and cultures – and to impoverish us all.
So next time you are listening to a pianist sounding terrible, have a think about how hard it is to find a piano tuner these days.
Dr Jim Bright, FAPS owns Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy and is director of evidence & impact at BECOME Education an ed tech start-up, become.education. Email to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright
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Source: Thanks smh.com