TCS Daily

The Knead for New Jobs

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Will we all become massage therapists? That was the question asked by some in response to a column I wrote a while back, entitled Kent Brockman on Unemployment, that looked at automation, offshore outsourcing, and other trends in the American employment market.

And, according to this essay by Virginia Postrel in The New York Times Magazine, the answer seems to be that people already are. Virginia's essay looks at the problem as, in part, one of lagging perceptions:

Many of the jobs that disappeared in the recent recession have indeed vanished forever, according to a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Those workers will not be recalled as the economy improves. New jobs will have to be genuinely new, created in new or expanding enterprises. But where will they come from? In a quickly evolving economy, in which increased productivity constantly makes some jobs redundant, we notice the job losses. It is much harder to spot where new jobs are emerging. Our mental categories tend to be behind the times. When we think of jobs, we see factories, secretarial pools, police officers, lawyers. We forget all about jobs we see every day.

Among those new jobs that aren't counted are, yes, a dramatically increasing number of massage therapists, who show up in industry figures but not in the records of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Virginia is undoubtedly correct that there are a lot more massage therapists than there used to be. I started getting professional massage nearly 20 years ago, when I was just out of law school, in response to computer-related neck and back problems. (I was on the leading edge of those, thank you very much.) Massage therapy was not unknown, but it was hard to find and was still confused in many people's minds with prostitution-oriented "massage parlors" of a wholly different nature.

Now massage therapists are everywhere, and they seem fully employed. (Just try to book an appointment at the last minute.) What's more, these are -- in the Michael Dukakis phrase that Democrats seem to be exhuming -- "good jobs at good wages." Massage therapists working in spas make upwards of thirty-five dollars an hour (often considerably upwards of that) and work in safe, pleasant conditions. Just compare a spa to the workplace of a steelworker or coal miner, where the conditions are much less salubrious and the wages generally somewhat lower, though these jobs are the traditional exemplars of high-paying employment available to people without advanced educational credentials. Shiatsu beats steelmaking any day.

But so what? Isn't our national virility at risk, if we shift from being a nation of miners and steelworkers to becoming a nation of massage therapists?

Maybe so. And for those who want to bolster our national virility I have no suggestions as to what might constitute the workplace equivalent of Viagra. I'll grant that a steel mill is a more manly place to work than a day spa, and that steelworkers are generally more manly than massage therapists. But on the national level, there's still plenty of steel. It's just being made with fewer workers.

The other argument, of course, is that massage therapy (and related services) is somehow superficial -- that it's not real work. That's a traditional view of service industries, going back to Adam Smith. Manufacturing produces something tangible. The results of services work are much less obvious.

Virginia, in fact, seems to accept this critique:

By missing so many new sources of productivity, the undercounts distort our already distorted view of economic value -- the view that treats traditional manufacturing and management jobs as more legitimate, even more real, than craft professions or personal-service businesses. But the truth is, value can come as much from intangible pleasures as it can from tangible goods.

That's true, of course. But services can produce more than just "intangible pleasures." In fact, even massage therapy can, and I'm an example.

When I was practicing law in Washington back in the 1980s, I developed all the usual computer problems: Numbness and shooting pains in my wrists and hands, backache, neckache, headache, etc. My health plan then was the George Washington University HMO. That meant I got great care at a fancy teaching hospital, which did me no good at all. I was examined by neurologists, immunologists, occupational medicine specialists, and orthopedists. I had nerve conduction studies and electromyelograms. I was given powerful NSAIDs that upset my stomach but provided little relief. I was tested for lupus, myasthenia gravis, and Lou Gehrig's disease.

Then I went to a massage therapist, who dug her thumb into my back just inside a shoulderblade and asked "does this trigger your symptoms?" It did. She prescribed some stretches and exercises, and I got much better.

A pill that gave me an equivalent amount of relief would be considered a "product," and the worker who made it a "manufacturing job." But the pill would have side effects, and it would come out of a factory that consumed resources and energy, and produced pollution and waste, in a way that a massage therapist doesn't.

So the massage therapist is, in a sense, a replacement for that manufacturing job. What's more, the reason that there are more massage therapists, in part, is that more people can afford them. And the reason that more people can afford them is that increasing productivity makes manufactured stuff -- computers, clothing, food, etc. -- cheaper. So when companies shift to automation or outsourcing to lower their costs, it in fact does help to produce new jobs at home.

To pick another example, the manufacture of cheap plastic dolls -- whether Barbies, Bratz, or, God forbid, Liam Flavas -- counts as, well, manufacturing. And my daughter used to spend most of her allowance money on that sort of thing. But more recently she's been spending her money at Club Libby Lu, where she gets "starlet makeovers" and the like. These cost about as much as a doll but, to my delight, don't add to the clutter of trash at my house that has grown to proportions sufficient to inspire a column of its own. Isn't the American economy actually better off when cheap plastic dolls made in China are replaced by services performed at home? Heck, I think it's better off than it would be if my daughter's money were going toward cheap plastic dolls made in America -- there's no environmental damage (er, except for the dreaded glitter-powder, which is impossible to eradicate) and no addition to my trashpile. And makeovers are harder to move offshore. . . .

I'm hardly one to pooh-pooh the issues of outsourcing, unemployment, and economic transformation -- I've been writing about it for a while, and Virginia herself has actually accused me of fanning the flames of protectionism in some of my columns on this topic here -- but there's a case to be made for the economic transition to services (which in reality, of course, goes way beyond the massage therapy and makeover angles) that isn't being made. I'm glad to see that people are at least looking at it, though, and I hope that experts like Virginia will pay more attention to this subject in the future. Because if America's response to the very real strains introduced by economic change isn't to be a protectionist one, we need a lot of smart people looking at, and writing about, these issues.


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