The Changing Nature of Employment in the Great Recession

I recently saw the Great Depression film “The Grapes of Wrath,” and while I had seen it before, this time I was reminded of what’s going on in employment today.  The movie starts off with Henry Fonda returning to his family farm after having been away for a few years, only to find his home abandoned.  He soon learns that his family, as well as all of his Oklahoma neighbors, have been evicted and are leaving for the promise of jobs in California.

We then learn that the families in Oklahoma have been hit with a perfect storm.  Drought, low farm prices, and the displacement caused by farm automation had resulted in bankruptcy and foreclosure for millions of farmers.  It was reported that one man with a tractor could replace 10-15 family farms, and over 100 farm workers.

Similarities to the Great Recession

Consider the tractor for a moment.  The gasoline powered tractor first appeared way back in 1892.  However, it didn’t really catch on until the tractor was mass produced in the 1910’s.  Then, as tractor prices came down, its use on the farm started to take off.   The result was an increase in farm productivity, falling prices for farm products, and a loss of jobs for millions of farmers.  This displacement peaked 20 years later, during the Great Depression.

Today, we can see a similar process at work with computer technology and the Internet.  The first personal computer came on the scene way back in the late 1970’s.  Its adoption didn’t really take off until the 1980’s, eventually resulting in the computer being pervasive enough to enable the explosion of the Internet in the 1990’s.

Along the way, we’ve seen computers and the Internet displace people in selective industries.  Some of the first to feel the pain were the music industry, followed by the travel industry, newspapers and now the television networks.   We have also seen many roles within companies evaporate as well.  Factory workers were the first to go, followed by clerical, administrative, and now management level positions.

Today, after years of automating and streamlining processes, we’re seeing virtually every career in every industry under pressure.  Consider the following report by CBS News:

Jobs Created by Decade,
as reported by CBS News
Decade Jobs Created
1970’s 19 Million
1980’s 18 Million
1990’s 21 Million
2000’s Less Than
1 Million

Bottom line, we are in the middle of a massive restructuring of our employment base, and the jobs of yesterday are about as likely to return as that of the farm labor positions of the 1930’s.  This is not only consistent with what happened during the Great Depression, but also what we would expect to happen during the “Winter” stage of the long economic cycle as reported in Deflation in History:

the “Winter” stage, that of severe depression, includes the integration of previous social shifts and changes into the social fabric of society, supported by the shifts in innovation and technology.

Jobs of Tomorrow

In the next couple of postings, we’ll explore the changing nature of the job market in more detail, with a special focus on new opportunities that can replace our old models of employment.  Since this is a work in progress, you questions and comments are encouraged.  Until next time … is a blog by Jay Fenello, principal and founder of, an Atlanta-based
Business Brokerage and Placement firm that helps people buy and sell small businesses and franchises.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.