Engaging Economic Change: Lessons from American History
Sharon Harrison
08/03/2021

My presentation today is about some lessons we can learn from history to better help people today as they try to succeed in the face of rapid economic changes. This organization that dedicates itself to helping those who are unemployed or looking for some better job situation, has asked me to do a short review of this issue historically so that we can glean some lessons for how best to help.

OUTLINE
My Topic
Industrial Revolution
Great Migration
Factory Work
Post-WWII – Ending Difficult Years with Hopes
Making Connections – Now and the Future
Information Age – Bookstores
Making Connections – Now and the Future
Sources

My presentation will be in six parts as shown here. I have selected some examples, using both primary sources and secondary sources. These examples are ones we can learn from.

Topic
What happens when the workplace changes because of shifts in the types of work?
Examples of such transformations in US History include the transition to the Industrial Revolution, the transition from the Great Depression and WWII economy to the boom of the 1950s, and the rise of the Information Age we are still experiencing. People adjusted by moving to areas with more job opportunities, improving their education and training profile, and making lifestyle and career changes. They needed an agile mindset that embraced change and vigorously sought new opportunities.

To be more specific, our topic asks a question and finds ways this has been answered in the past. What happens when the workplace changes because of shifts in the types of work? Examples of such transformations in US History include the transition to the Industrial Revolution, the transition from the Great Depression and WWII economy to the boom of the 1950s, and the rise of the Information Age we are still experiencing. People adjusted by moving to areas with more job opportunities, improving their education and training profile, and making lifestyle and career changes. They needed an agile mindset that embraced change and vigorously sought new opportunities.

Industrial Revolution

Many Problems:
Going from farm or former work to factories—major adjustment in every way—new type of work and workplace
Factories with poor working conditions and safety standards
Child Labor; too often low wages; prejudices; new tasks

The INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION took off in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s; and was reinvigorated by World War II’s war economy. These changes were going to happen no matter what individuals preferred in terms of their former mode of life. People must work and eat. The new economy meant more factories, more mining, new systems of work and production that few could evaluate until change was upon them. There were adjustments for people to make—going from farm work to factory work, relocating, developing new skills and expectations for a new type of workplace. The new system was originally very unregulated, so problems of exploitation—poor working conditions, unsafe workplaces, child labor, often low wages, etc. But, the increase in productivity and profitability of the new economy was unmistakable. The old ways of work would not be so available. People must change to survive or succeed.

Great Migration

African Americans
1915-1940: Migrating from Jim Crow south to new factory jobs in north
Evidence: Letter to the Chicago Defender “ ”

One of the great examples of courageous and necessary change can be found by the thousands of African Americans who considered and then took part in the Great Migration between 1915 and 1940. African Americans stuck in the Jim Crow south found it hard to make a living. They looked to move north—scouted for guidance and opportunities.
EXAMPLE: African Americans who were a part of this migration wrote to northern newspapers, desperately trying to connecting with a northern newspapers, like the Chicago Defender, for help. They would write about their hardships and trying to escape, but urged the newspaper to “please don’t publish my letter” as the migration was starting to cause tension between African Americans and Whites in the South.
LESSON: Jobs don’t come to you. You have to take action and look and ask. When job searching, in every communication, emphasize your ethic of hard work. People need to seek guidance for doing a job search—and the location of such jobs, while also showing a willingness to move there.

Factory Work
Factory Work and New Skills
Mastery of specialized tasks
Close supervision and monotony
Located in new areas
Some—like Ford—paid well
Productivity a must

Adjusting to new factory work involved new skills and specialized tasks. They also had to learn to tolerate close supervision, perhaps monotonous work, and too often low wages. This next example comes from an NPR report that reflects back on Henry Ford’s early factories that produced the Model T in the period in that decade between 1910 and 1920 and then beyond. The article points out Ford’s assembly line and his decision to pay his workers well, a decision made when businesses generally aimed to pay the lowest wage possible to keep overall costs down . The article discusses Ford’s motives and the assembly line that used conveyor belts and workers having very specialized task as parts came by.
LESSONS: For business owners, one can learn to look for efficiency by using innovations in technology (electricity; conveyor belts) and innovations in method (assembly line; mastery of specialized tasks; and paying well). For workers—we learn it is important to seek jobs with those who pay well and to learn new specialized skills, and to recognize that job monotony or some other drawback can be the trade-off.

Post-WWII—Ending Difficult Years with Hopes

Consider the previous Years of Difficulty:
Great Depression of 1929-1939
World War II economy—women in factories; rationing; many abroad at war
When the War did end, the US was now well-positioned economically for the 1950s economic boom
War industries in place—converting to peacetime
For most, many new opportunities for work with good wages
Massive investments made education and training opportunities widely available
Many took advantage of new education opportunities; rising incomes, and being consumers of new types of goods

This slide is based on a textbook’s description of the 1950s economy, and it is generally one historians agree with. This is a secondary source that describes America’s economic transition out of Depression and the World War II economy. It points out that, despite economic weariness, the historical context gave the United States a major advantage in the global economy; new industries had developed during the war; and the workforce had also changed. It points out especially new innovations in Real Estate and Insurance that allowed for widespread home ownership and insurance coverage for sound use of money. But, it also points out the massive investment in education that allowed the work force of the 1950s to become well –prepared for work in the new economy.
LESSONS: The importance of EDUCATION and TRAINING in new skills to successfully take part in a new economy. The importance of identifying new possibilities for using one’s money to invest in the future.

Making Connections – Now and the Future
The INFORMATION AGE has replaced the INDUSTRIAL AGE in recent decades
With it there are new types of workplaces and new types of work
Sometimes old work places get replaced.
Other times they get transformed.

This slide updates the history to our own time. We have been living in another major period of economic transition to what historians call the INFORMATION AGE. This change is still in process, though now some see a new age dawning with the advent of artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, etc. As you have observed in recent years, computer and internet skills have become basic in everything from job searching to the skills required for even basic tasks in the 21st century workplace. Workplaces have been changed, and so has the work they do. Some workplaces have just become outmoded and replaced.

Information Age -Bookstores

Example of traditional bookstore
Interview with bookstore owner Eric Kelley (2009)
Report on situation and prospects for traditional bookstore in 2009
Ways to adjust and survive
Realism and change

This is an example that might be familiar—the traditional bookstore trying to adjust and survive in the Information Age. The primary person interviewed is Eric Kelley, owner of the Book Den—specializing in antiquarian books. But, Kelley a traditional bookstore owner, is trying to adjust to a new Information Age market situation that includes major online competition like Amazon. The article observes the 2009 market and sees the struggles then of Borders and even Barnes and Noble, and also just about every bookseller. Kelley had decided to make online selling part of his business, and by 2009 online sales were 40 percent of his business. That has enabled him to survive. But, competition is very steep—and the future looked very difficult. There is the notion that the personal experience of the bookstore and holding the book and emphasizing the friendly, family-type, social atmosphere will add something the internet sellers cannot do. But, the article points out several other traditional area bookstores that have closed up.
LESSONS: For a business owner—or for one working in a particular field, one must keep adjusting to new market realities, adjusting the approach and strategy. Emphasize strong points and adjust to ne market opportunities. But, also be realistic. Sometimes a certain type of business or career is changing too much to keep it viable for work and income. That change must be considered also. Perhaps one must change career or change to join the new types of ventures that have replaced your older one.

Making Connections – Now and the Future
FACING ECONOMIC CHANGE :
Lessons for Today and the Future
Embrace economic change instead of resisting it; Expect change; realize change is often difficult but you can do it
Seek opportunities actively—know your skills and limits; sell yourself
Seek education and training in new skills and new types of work environments
Cultivate the quality of AGILITY—willingness to change, move, etc—and the capacity to change

So, what have we learned and how to does this organization go forward. For those facing the rapid changes in our economy, we have gleaned some valuable lessons.
Embrace economic change instead of resisting it; Expect change; realize change is often difficult but you can do it
Seek opportunities actively—know your skills and limits; sell yourself
Seek education and training in new skills and new types of work environments
Cultivate the quality of AGILITY—willingness to change, move, etc—and the capacity to change
As this service organization strives to help those who are struggling and economically stuck, these lessons from history can guide how we assist and in what programs we invest. I list my sources on the next slide, and I thank you for your attention.

Sources
Conclusion: Post War Economy. (n.d.).
Cweik, S. (2014, January 27). The Middle Class Took Off 100 Years Ago … Thanks to Henry Ford?. NPR.
Goldschein, E. (2011, August 29). 10 Lessons from People Who Lived Through the Depression. Business Insider.
Kornell, S. (2009, Feb. 12). The Uncertain Fate of Independent Bookstores. Santa Barbara Independent.
Myre, G. (2013). The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo: The Old Rules No Longer Apply. NPR.
National Child Labor Committee Collection—Images—Child Labor—Accidents (1908–1924). (n.d.). Library of Congress.
Rafferty, J. (n.d.). The Rise of the Machines: Pros and Cons of the Industrial Revolution. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
“Sir I Will Thank You with All My Heart”: Seven Letters from the Great Migration. (n.d.). History Matters.
Women in the Work Force during World War II. (2016, August 15). National Archives.

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