Gender and the Service Economy

Earlier this week, Grist’s Dave Roberts was going on one of his twitter-jihads against opponents of “industrial policy” and one key point he’s making is where on earth are middle-skilled middle class jobs supposed to come from if not from manufacturing.

I think this is a crucial question to ask, especially because it’s really not as closely related to issues about trade and industrial policy as many people think. The fact of the matter is that the long-term trend in US manufacturing output is up even as the trend in employment is down. And that’s precisely because greedy for-profit firms don’t like to hire lots and lots of people for high-wage labor-intensive work. So over time, they’ve gotten better and better at replacing people with machines. The edge Chinese workers have over Americans is that they’re so cheap (so far) that they’re not worth replacing with machines. But their time will come, and the future of mid-skill employment will necessarily entail a loto fo work in human service fields where demand is growing and automation hasn’t made much progress.

Meanwhile, yesterday I was in a chair in the oral surgeon’s office getting ready to have some prep done and the surgical assistant went to put some gloves on. But after reaching for a pair from the dispenser in the room, he had to run out briefly and get another pair from someplace else. He explained that it’s a “female-dominated field” so they never have enough gloves that are big enough for his hands around. And, indeed, as the day went on it was clear that aside from that guy and the (male) surgeon himself, all the nurses and assistants and whatever else they’re calleds working in office were women. Which is the kind of thing that’s so normal you don’t even notice it until someone’s talking about glove sizes. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but I guess there’s a perception that this kind of “caring” work is less manly than working in a factory. But the various forms of nurse (or advanced nurse) and physician assistant type jobs out there are precisely the type of middle class work for which there’s certain to be growing demand in aging, increasingly wealthy societies. Someday probably someone will come up with a way to build robot nurses, but that seems a ways off at this point.

All of which is to say that while there’s a lot that while in the short-term the economy mostly just needs more demand, over the longer-haul I think part of what we’re going to need is a shift in gender norms.