Let’s look back at America nearly a century ago – in the 1920s.
Back then the nation was transitioning from a predominantly rural nation to the factory age. Many jobs were agriculture-related. That’s not say folks couldn’t get in their Model T’s and drive on the new two-lane highways to the city to factory jobs – building automobiles, steel production, highway construction, assembling appliances like refrigerators, washing machines, vacuums and telephones. Of course, men living in rural areas still worked as farmers. In towns and cities, signs hanging from building fronts or stenciled on window panes still advertised doctors, lawyers and bankers.
Women? The traditional jobs still prevailed – teachers, nurses, librarians and maids. But when Henry Ford created the assembly line production model that became industry standard, it allowed companies to hire cheap, unskilled laborers – and some of those jobs were filled (for the first time in history) by women to do jobs that were traditionally male jobs. Not surprisingly, they were hired at cheaper rates. In Rittman, Ohio, in the mid-1920s, my maternal grandmother, Mildred Kurtz Franks, took a secretarial job at the local boxboard plant. I have a photo of her and her friend Pearl standing in front of the plant.
For me, Grandma Mid has come to symbolize that long-ago time. She came from a large family with extended aunts and uncles living in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. At the beginning of the 1920s when the industrial transition was just starting in towns like Rittman, Grandma Mid lost her mother, father and a sister. Grandma was just twelve when her parents, Icie Belle and David Elmer, died in July 1920 within a week of each other. Then late in the year, her sister Hazel passed away. First, a heart attack claimed Icie Belle, then Consumption (or Tuberculosis) killed her husband and her daughter.
Left orphans, Grandma Mid and her younger sisters and brothers were taken in by older siblings as well as uncles and aunts. In times of indescribable tragedy, a family of thirteen brothers and sisters can be a godsend. Even so, my grandma was shuffled from relative to relative until she finally settled in for her teenage years with an older sister – my Aunt Ethel – at her home at S. Fourth Street in Rittman. In 1915, Ethel married the town’s baker, Raymond Snyder, who built her that two-story house on Fourth Street.
In her high school years, Grandma Mid was on hand to help her sister Ethel raise her two children, Russell and little brother Harold. Thus was a bond forged in the bleak moments after the deaths of Icie Belle and David Elmer that still echo nearly a century later in my friendship with Harold’s sons, John and Ron. When my mom died in November 2003, the news crushed Harold. He sent my sister and me a specially made photo album full of old photos that showed the loving closeness of the Snyder and Franks families. I’m going to include a couple of the photos with this post.
A similar catastrophe nowadays would likely see my Grandma Mid placed in foster care. Of course, there are still families in the 21st Century where grandmas will take in their grandchildren when tragedy befalls the kids’ mommies and daddies. But not always, statistics bear out.
Raymond’s mother lived in the Main Street apartment above the bakery. When she passed away in the 1939-1940 period, Aunt Ethel and Uncle Raymond moved from their Fourth Street house into the downtown apartment. Grandma Mid and her husband Frog moved into the Fourth Street house, along with their children, Jackie (my mom) and Denny. Aunt Ethel was still looking after her little sister.
In the early 1950s, one of Grandma Mid’s little brothers, Kenny, was diagnosed with cancer. Too early in the 20th century to take advantage of modern cancer-fighting technology, Kenny passed away, leaving behind his wife, Pauline, and four kids. A brother, Clarence, and his wife, Fern, had already raised a family of four boys. Now a widower, Clarence came to the rescue, marrying Pauline, and providing a home for her and the children, David, Don, Tom and Becky.
Another of Grandma Mid’s brothers, George, a World War I veteran, lost an arm in a train accident. In George’s twilight years, he lived with Aunt Ethel and Uncle Raymond. I can remember sitting with him in the front parlor and chitchatting with him.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Kurtz family safety net saved family members during times of tragedy. They lived out the words Jesus preached in the New Testament. No orphanages, no foster homes, no appearances on Dr. Phil – just a loving extended family.
What’s the differences nowadays? First off, many families are broken with kids caught between feuding parents. A family safety net doesn’t exist. Divorced/single mothers are raising kids alone, and working multiple low-paying job to put food on the table and clothes on her children. Some need federal aid like food stamps and rental assistance, yet these kinds of programs are about to get slashed.
Churches and charities do help out with food banks and soup kitchens, but they are not enough. In 1920, the population of the U.S. was 106 million. Sounds big, doesn’t it? Let’s compare it to today’s population – 324 million. Three times as many Americans as in 1920. And today we’re in the midst of some seismic social and economic shifts that are leaving Americans uneasy, even frightened.
By mid-century, it looks as if the United States will become a majority-minority nation, a place where whites make up less than half the population. Back in 1965, whites made up about 85 percent of the population, with blacks mostly making up the remaining 15 percent. Since then, the white majority has shrunk to just over 60 percent, while Hispanic and Asian groups have gained a new demographic prominence. Today, Hispanics make up about 18 percent of the US population; Asians about 6 percent; blacks, 16 percent.
In 2055, whites will make up 48 percent of the population. Altogether, Hispanics, Asians, blacks and American Indians will total more than 50 percent of the population. But how will the children from mixed marriages, a black father and a Hispanic mother, for example, see themselves? Or the children of a black father and a white mother? That’s the one foggy unknown.
The loss of blue-collar jobs involves not only corporate owners moving manufacturing facilities to foreign countries, these business bigwigs are also investing in robotics for assembly lines and even in the fast-food industry, leading to more job losses. Need a taxi ride? In the 2020s, the taxicab might be driverless. The same with buses. It’s a nerve-wracking problem that’s not going to go away. Where are humans going to get jobs? The year 2050 will be here in just 33 years. Here’s a thought that should terrify you. What if most Americans are getting government assistance in 2030?
OK, I concede… maybe I could be more optimistic. New technology will generate new jobs, right? Those driverless cars… they’ll need software engineers and mechanics to maintain the sensors and everything else that will ensure passengers stay safe on city streets. And the robotic technology on factory floors…. they’ll still need people overseeing their maintenance. But the big question remains: How many?
Just a week ago Elon Musk and his SpaceX dreamers launched a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg in California and landed the first stage on a barge floating in the Pacific. Soon, maybe as early as 2018, they’ll be launching manned Dragon spacecraft to the space station. Musk has ambitious plans for Mars. He wants to build Godzilla-sized rockets and spacecraft to send thousands of colonists to Mars in the latter half of the 21st Century. Can you spell JOBS? Jobs overseeing the automated rocket- and spacecraft-building machines including robotic welders, jobs writing the software for the machines and for the navigation systems for those spacecraft sailing the ocean of space, etc.
Heady stuff, but it’s going to be scary getting there. Lots of older folks who failed to keep up with the technological changes will be obsolete. How the country deals with them will determine how smooth or bumpy the transition will be. Let’s hope smooth as a meg-lev ride aboard a Hyperloop train.
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I’m not one of those who can kick out three novels a year. I’ve managed to get three published over the last seven years. Those three belong to a sword-and-sorcery fantasy trilogy published by Wings ePress. They’re available on the websites of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Come a little closer… I’ve something I want to whisper in your ear: “Buy them and help my sales.”
I’m working on a fourth novel, a Civil War tale full of battle scenes and romance. I’ve come up with a title: Blessed Shadows Dark & Deep. It’s written; I’m now editing the chapters. It’s my best work yet; I’m not exaggerating.