The concern over the economy is palpable, with the whole world asking serious questions: Can Europe find a way to deal with the heavy debt load of many European countries? Can the U.S. avoid a double-dip recession? Will Japan find a way to reboot without nuclear electric power? How healthy can the rest of the world’s economies really be if their export markets in Europe, the U.S. and Japan are tottering?
Behind all these questions lies a deep concern over what an advanced economy will look like in the future and how it will provide jobs for masses. President Barack Obama recently mused that our unemployment problems were caused by businesses that had become “more efficient with a lot fewer workers,” and he mentioned the use of ATMs, rather than bank tellers, and automated check-in kiosks at airports, rather than staffed counters, as examples of how jobs were disappearing.
Most economists would say finding more efficient ways to do things enhances prosperity. There was a time, for example, when a majority of the population was employed in farming in order to feed the country. Today, the population has grown, and large tractors, drip irrigation, hybrid seeds, new fertilizers, and fungicides have made the American farmer the most productive in the world — all this done by 2 to 3 percent of the population. This frees up millions of Americans to do other things.
But to do what? Some sectors are obvious for growth. As the economy becomes more global, the competition is fierce, so one would expect more jobs in education as we try to race ahead of international competitors for high-value jobs. Medicine and healthcare is another growth sector. As people live longer and our technology enables us to intervene medically to enhance health, jobs will be plentiful in this sector.
There is another area in which demand will increase employment: People will increasingly seek high-quality food. The entire national convulsion in favor of local, small-scale, sustainable, bio-diverse, artisan-produced food is a rebellion from the notion that only efficiency matters. It is people planting a stake and saying we have other values and the means to insist upon our food reflecting those values.
Even if only a small percentage of the food supply shifts to an artisan model, it will take many workers to produce and market these specialty products. Many of these positions will be both productive and satisfying as the workers will be deeply connected to the food they produce. That is good for both the national palate and the national employment statistics.