Deindustrialization of America

Reference: JSource original

A Culture of Innovation

The United States of America is a country that has been built on innovation. In the few short centuries since its inception, the USA has become one of the most powerful contenders in the global marketplace, producing some of the greatest inventors and inventions the world has ever seen. Due to the vastness of the North American continent, the USA has always been able to function as both an agricultural and an industrial nation; however, with the growing threat of global climate change and the rapidly shrinking need for unskilled labor, America’s economic future has never been more uncertain.

An ironic twist has occurred in recent years: many innovations that were expected to increase productivity, such as the silicon microchip, have had the unexpected effect of reducing the need for human workers, resulting in a near-barren job market. Naturally, this was not the outcome that anyone hoped for. Scientists believed that technological advancements would change the way people did their work, but few expected so many jobs would become obsolete as a result.

The Industrial Revolution, which took place throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, shepherded in an age of technological development, and the transformation of much of the American landscape from rural-agrarian to an urban-industrial. Immigrants came by the boatload seeking work in factories, and despite poor conditions and low wages, a “better life” on American soil always seemed within reach.

Leaving on a Jet Plane: Exportation of Jobs Overseas

At the turn of the 20th century, innovation became more focused on science and finding new ways to increase productivity in the burgeoning industrial economy. One of the most important inventions was the jet-powered airplane. The first planes flown by the Wright Brothers in 1903 were powered by propellers, which could sustain flight, but could not reach a high enough altitude for overseas travel. “Like perhaps no other single technology, the jet engine revolutionized air travel around the world. Unlike the old propeller-driven planes that were powered by piston engines, jet planes could fly at tremendous speeds, thus cutting down travel time. Jet-equipped airplanes also could climb faster and fly higher. Both the U.S. Air Force and civil aircraft builders found these capabilities attractive in the years after World War II when international contacts stretched across the globe” [U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission].

When travel across the ocean became a possibility, Americans saw opportunities for exporting work as well as products. Setting up factories in Asia was (and still is) cost-efficient, and allowed for business to grow internationally. However, this made it much harder for Americans to find work that did not require more education or special skills; as difficult as life had always been for the lower class, the rise of globalization only made it worse.

Containerize, Globalize

“For many thousands of years, mankind has shipped goods across the oceans, from one land to another. Think of the great seafaring peoples; the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Portuguese, Spanish, British and many more. Sailing the world looking for new treasures, they brought home and traded food, jewels and materials that their countrymen had never seen before.” [World Shipping Council]

Up until the mid-20th century, products had only ever been shipped by the process of “break-bulk” shipping, which involved packing individual goods in crates and barrels. These goods were handled by dock workers, hundreds of men who loaded and unloaded ships. It was easy for anyone to find work in this industry, especially in the years after World War II, when the economy was booming. Middle and lower-class men with strong backs could earn a decent living, as there was always a need for more man-power.

“There were some basic systems in place to make the process more efficient, such as the use of rope for bundling timber, sacks for carrying coffee beans, and pallets for stacking and transporting bags or sacks. However, industrial and technological advances, such as the spread of the railways in the 18th century, highlighted the inadequacies of the cargo shipping system. The transfer of cargo from trains to ships and vice versa became a real problem.” [World Shipping Council]

In the 1950s, a truck driver named Malcolm McLean had a simple idea that would forever alter transcontinental trade. The owner of his own trucking company, McLean saw firsthand the difficulties faced by transporters of goods. The shipping industry was in decline, yet there remained a need for trading overseas and cross-country, and no efficient means of doing so.

“McLean redesigned truck trailers into two parts—a truck bed on wheels and an independent box trailer, or container. He had not envisioned a Seatrain type of business, in which the boxcar is rolled onto the ship through the power of its own wheels. On the contrary, McLean saw several stackable trailers in the hull of the ship. The trailers would need to be constructed of heavy steel so that they could withstand rough seas and protect their contents. They would also have to be designed without permanent wheel attachments and would have to fit neatly in stacks. McLean patented a steel-reinforced corner-post structure, which allowed the trailers to be gripped for loading from their wheeled platforms and provided the strength needed for stacking.” [Harvard Business School]

The ingenuity of McLean’s idea revitalized the shipping industry, but also posed a problem for the thousands of dock workers who made their living loading and unloading boxes from ships. It was far more cost efficient to invest in the machinery required to transport large containers, and pay a few men to operate it. In the end, shipping businesses prospered, but an entire work-force disappeared.

When Science Meets Business: Satellite Technology

Even with the advent of containerization, American business would never have been able to succeed abroad without the invention of satellite technology. Satellites, simply put, are artificial objects sent into orbit. The first satellite to orbit the earth was Sputnik 1 in 1957, developed by the Soviet Union. Sputnik 1 utilized radio frequencies to become the first effective communications device in space. In addition to being a major technological breakthrough, there were political implications of Sputnik’s launch: the United States was engaged in a burgeoning Cold War with Russia, and the expansion of the USSR’s communications into space put the USA in a potentially vulnerable position. This sparked what is now known as the “Space Race,” leading the US government to prioritize the development of space technology as part of their national security initiative.

The development of satellites as communication devices opened up new paths for businesses to expand. Going hand in hand with expedited air travel, satellites enabled telephone communication overseas, allowing businessmen to better check on their foreign offices or factories. This transition from national to international business has resulted in millions of jobs being exported overseas, making it much harder for Americans entering the job market to find unskilled work.

Many of the jobs that are not taken over by foreign workers are often replaced by computers, and, despite how futuristic this may seem, robotics. When the silicon microchip was invented by Jack Kilby in 1958, it was the first step in developing the computers that are now commonplace. Once the size of an entire room, computers today can fit in the palm of your hand, and entire businesses can be run with the tip of a finger. The face of business has been forced to adapt to these technological advances: a select few highly skilled jobs become crucial while many unskilled jobs become obsolete.

As beneficial as scientific discoveries and inventions can be to society, oftentimes society cannot change as quickly as its technology.

Table of Contents

Jet travel

Transport Containers

Overseas Job Exportation


Silicon Microchip

Moore’s Law

Technology Ever-Changing