Labor’s Twilight

Labor’s Twilight

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Labors Twilight-The Changing American Workforce

The Changing American Workforce

by Gary Kaplan
Photos by Matthew Kaplan

In the 1800s the Calumet region of northwest Indiana was Chicago’s Cape Cod. The baltic blue crescent of Lake Michigan curved serenely eastward from the state line. Tawny beaches and rolling sand dunes offered refuge from the raucous, brawling city of the big shoulders. Windwarped swale and reedy marshland attracted hunters and fishermen, birdwatchers and botanists. The lowslung, undeveloped lakefront lured industrial land scouts.

In 1889, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company broke ground for a refinery on the lakeshore just east of the state line near a railroad junction called Whiting’s Siding. Within a few years the Whiting Refinery was the largest in the US. In 1906 J.P. Morgan and Judge Elbert Gary began construction on the US Steel Gary Works. By midcentury, the 30 miles of lakeshore between Chicago and Gary had filled in seamlessly with shoulder to shoulder oil refineries, steel mills and chemical plants. The Calumet Region, named by 17th century French trappers for the marsh reeds (chalumet) that choked their canoe channels, had become the largest industrial concentration in the world.

The Changing American Workforce-East Chicago Canal

Those industries needed labor. In the 1960s, heavy industry in the Calumet Region employed 66,000 workers. Most of them belonged to unions. Their wages, benefits and pensions enabled them to own houses, raise families, buy cars, send children to college, and retire in their 60s with enough pension and social security to live comfortably in their paid-off houses and enjoy their grandchildren for the balance of their 67 years of life expectancy. Their industrial wages created a thriving economy. Their taxes built roads and schools, paid police and firemen. Settlement pushed south and east from the mill gates. By 1960 the region’s population had reached 700,000.

But things were changing

One morning in the 1960s my father slid onto the stool at the counter of his regular diner next to a friend who worked at Inland Steel. As they sipped their coffee, the man told my dad that he was going to be laid off. The job he had done for twenty years was being “automated.” He was being replaced by a machine. It wasn’t the first instance of “automation,” but it was the first to hit so close to home.

Industrial labor was hard, dirty and dangerous. Steel-toed boots, asbestos gloves and hard hats were supposed to protect workers from the bubbling molten steel and hissing gas flares and toxic chemical fumes they tended all day long, and all night on third shifts. Those flimsy membranes didn’t prevent workers from losing fingers, getting hands crushed or being scarred by third degree burns when something erupted or burst or came crashing down. Occasionally a man would be killed. Billboards at the mill gates announced the number of days since the last industrial accident. Everyone knew that working in the mills (as the collective complex was called) was dangerous. But the pay and the job security were worth the risk.

The Changing American Workforce-US Steel South

No human activity has been more disruptive to the natural order than heavy industry, but none has produced greater improvements in the material conditions of human life. The 67-year life expectancy of the 1960s steelworker was far higher than the 46 years of his 1900 predecessor, and his mid-century lifespan has been surpassed in turn by the current 76 years.

Heavy industry laid the foundations of its own obsolescence. Blue collar workers built the skyscrapers in which white collar technocrats invented the post-industrial economy. As the Boston Globe warned on Labor Day, we now ponder a future in which “the majority of occupations can expect about 30% of their tasks to be automated.” Other projections have gone as high as 80%. Economists call this relentless technological churn “creative destruction.” My father called it putting people out of work.

The mills of the Calumet are producing twice their output of the 1960s with a quarter of the labor force. The jobs don’t look anything like the grimy millrat labor of my dad’s time. Today’s oil and steel workers sit at computer consoles digitally controlling the stills and furnaces. Robots do much of the dirty and dangerous work without gloves or hard hats. Fair trade coffee is served in the cafeteria. No one stops at the diner anymore.

The shape of our labor market has changed. We’ve heard the data points ad nauseam: 70% of the jobs in Massachusetts require post-secondary education; 99% of the new jobs since the Great Recession have gone to college graduates; income inequality has exploded as hourly wages have stagnated for 40 years. A two-year degree is worth $250,000 more in lifetime earnings than a high school diploma, and the bachelor’s degree premium is a cool million. And still, fewer than half of our high school graduates go on to earn any form of post-secondary credential.

The twin forces of globalization and technology will continue to drive up the skill levels required by American industry. It should alarm us that the US ranks 19th in the world in the percentage of 25 to 29-year-olds who have bachelor’s degrees (35.6%). This age group is a leading determinant of the quality of the labor force because their tenure in it will be the longest. Twenty years ago, we were number one. Where will we be twenty years from now?

Twilight can be dusk or dawn. It’s dusk for the old industrial workforce, but it can be dawn for a new workforce with the skills required by the new economy. School is starting this week. Nine out of ten of America’s young people are sitting down at desks and terminals in public schools. Fifty million public school students, our workforce in training, are writing the next chapter of our history. Their knowledge and skills—not petroleum or iron ore—are the raw materials of our future. We’d be wise to invest as much capital in their development as Rockefeller and Morgan did in oil and steel.

Changing American Workforce-East Chicago Harbor

Gary Kaplan is the executive director of JFYNetWorks, Boston
Matthew Kaplan is a Chicago-based photographer. His work can be viewed at


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