The Long Tail of Old Jobs

There aren’t many but there are still a few horse-drawn carriages on the streets of New York City – a somewhat controversial subject between Mayor DeBlasio, animal rights activists, and the owners of stables on the city’s west side.

The drivers of those horse-drawn carriages have old jobs. Many old jobs have gone by the wayside over the past century but the rate of job irrelevancy seems to be accelerating.

Growing up in the suburbs when I was young we had a neighborhood ‘Egg Man’. This man seemed older than old (and as I recall toothless) and his broken down station wagon could barely make it down the street. He would deliver eggs (and milk) straight to our door once a week. It’s a safe bet that there are few, if any, egg men anymore. Now we have Amazon Prime, Fresh Direct and Peapod. Yet per capita, Americans still consume 260+ eggs per year. Maybe there is a business delivering a hyper-local premium experience in the form of cage free local laid eggs and other dairy products. But it’s not a big business. The Soda Man is gone too and I don’t think he’s coming back.

Chris Anderson’s seminal book ‘The Long Tail’ from 2004  discussed the opportunity for businesses that catered to smaller niche groups of consistent and passionate customers. It gave hope and opportunity to many and emboldened others to try to make a go of it when they otherwise might not have bothered. The idea that an artist could make a recording and deliver it digitally to their fans bypassing the production and expense of having a label involved and still make a living was exciting even if it did not quite work out that way.

Some old jobs:

B0wling pin setter

Who even remembers?

Toll taker

Even as recently as the 1980’s being a toll-taker used to be a pretty decent public service job. Today that’s not the case. There are a few left and there likely will be for some time to come. The same can be said for NYC subway token clerks.

Printing sales

From personal experience I can offer than being a commercial printing salesman is also an old job. It does have a long tail opportunity since it’s not as if printing is going away entirely. But commercial printing is far from a growth industry. These days it’s a somewhat rare occasion when I get to use my printing chops to specify a print job or come up with an alternative that fits the project need. Yet I expect that core skill to serve me in some fashion for the balance of my professional career. You never need a printer, until you need one. I can say the same things for my friends and colleagues in the ‘data’ industry (which used to be called the mailing and email list industry). You never need a data guy until you need a data guy.

Deliberately bringing back old jobs is hardly a way to move forward. However for all the people that were trained to do a job they’ve done for twenty years or more, who now find themselves in constant peril of being sacked, it’s clear that a little advance warning would have been welcome. Nobody was telling people in the 1980’s and 1990’s to ‘update their skills’ and to prepare for what I am terming the ‘Automation Economy’.

Service jobs will best withstand the automation economy but they too will morph and be different as technology and automation continue to progress. Robocop http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093870/ seemed a bit farfetched when it was made in 1987. But a robotic police force (working in concert with police) would clearly change future employment figures for law enforcement and not in an aggregate positive way. We already know that with the development of self-driving cars, taxi, Uber and Lyft drivers are not long for this world even if it takes twenty years. That old job will not come back but the option of a paid guide to ride with you on a journey offers a personal service of high value. In as such, that would be a long tail job.

More old jobs:

Tutoring:

The business of sole practitioner tutoring is a long tail job and which itself has changed in large part due to remote access. We are far from the days where giants like Kaplan and Princeton Review could completely dominate the industry yet they remain relevant companies. What’s changing is that every day more one-to-one tutoring is done online and more people have access to tutors personal and otherwise than ever before. And geography is not a factor.

There remain plenty of other old jobs that will have a long tail. Accounting, Finance, and Legal jobs will change but are far from being made irrelevant. Performing some of those jobs in a large corporate organization may not look like what it does today thirty years from now. There could be many more accounting, financial and legal independent contractors that work with but not directly FOR the corporation. In that case those people become long tail employees in that they are saddled with having to manage multiple gigs in order to not be left out in the cold when one ‘client’ leaves. At that point haven’t they all become long tail jobs?

Professional musician:

How about orchestral and theater musicians? There are not nearly as many professional orchestras as there were thirty or more years ago and a good number of theater musicians have been ‘replaced’ with technology and recorded music. At the same time, being a professional musician will remain an avocation. There just won’t be quite as many of them able to make what might be considered a ‘decent living’.

Old jobs remain old jobs when they stagnate and fail to adapt and change. Working on a machine line offers little chance for individual innovation. The idea of a world of independent contractors has its merits and detriments, which I will not go into here but will in a future post. A talented member of my family is a professional musician (he’s a fiddler – really he is and a good one at that), an accountant and travels the world while delivering services for both from wherever he is via the miracle of digital communication.

What concerns me is the overall social impact of an increasingly isolated work force. The ability to be highly productive independent of the surroundings is a two-edged sword. The abandonment of personal interactions (whether intentional or not) is troubling and will have a variety of significant social impacts. I believe that when people work closely together the opportunity exists to produce the best consistently quality output. And that can be achieved in no other way. How society meets this challenge will be very interesting.

The Long Tail of Old jobs has already begun ready or not. Were you ready? Are you ready? 

About markkolier

Futurist, entrepreneur, left lane driver
This entry was posted in Best business practices, Jobs and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Long Tail of Old Jobs

  1. You have to wonder where both the tipping point in “old jobs” is, what the “new jobs” will be. I also wonder if there will be enough to sustain the profit margin and growth that corporations will need to sustain the profits they gained by automation. If half or more of their former customer base can’t sustain their purchases, then what was gained? If the world you are in goes from “slightly sucky but still pretty good to incredibly sucky” the you have to ask why did we do this?” Was automation and the new economy worth it? As to automation, I have an old but still viable and changing job but I now work remotely. You have to work very hard to stay integrated into the community.

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    • markkolier says:

      The last sentence is the most important Joe. The question of whether or not automation was worth it is also interesting as I have not thought about it in that way. Thanks.

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      • I think we have (ask if it’s worth it). We have to stop looking at business (and life, as our lives are becoming more and more about ‘Business’) as simple zero sum win/lose, profit/loss. Is what we do good for the community/customers we serve? I don’t think we ask those questions enough. We probably never did, but we never had the concentration of capital/corporations in the recent past like we do today.

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      • markkolier says:

        I’ve been thinking about your comment. While I agree that it’s terrible to boil everything down to a zero sum gain – winners and losers, I am also wary of trying to over-engineer workable solutions to societal problems and issues. Interesting thing to think about. Thanks.

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      • Agreed. I would never want to see legislation, but far too often I’ve encountered organizations that are narrow focused on the next quarterly report, the profit margin and how the “family” will profit from the business. Everything else ended there. It would have been nice had they put some thought into their community, their employees and their customers.

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      • markkolier says:

        Private companies can do that better than public ones. I am watching Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk closely. Zuckerberg too. The hook up to public markets puts everything into a short-term window. Not good as far as I am concerned.

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  2. Andy Pforzheimer says:

    Doug Rushmore’s wrote a really interesting piece called “the end of work” or something similar, a bunch of years back. His premise – that it takes so few people now to create the essentials of life that the rest of us will have to have jobs entertaining each other – has always stuck in my head.

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