Since industrialization American culture has been defined by a drive towards efficiency and productivity. Since that time efficiency, standardization, and volume of production have been the aspirational goals of every business and product, and have come to be the defining characteristics of American culture. For many years now Americans have not only evaluated their businesses by these industrial values, but also their lifestyles.
It is the values of the assembly line that gave us Walmart, McDonalds, and the other national chains that litter every exit ramp across America. This has lead many to lament the death of the small town idiosyncrasies that once made American culture so diverse and rich. However, most have gladly traded diversity for the certainty of a hamburger that tastes the same in every state, and large quantities of cheap products located at a store near you.
Over the past 20 years or so, however, America has been undergoing yet another transformation, as the service sector has displaced the industrial as the engine of economic growth and prosperity. The service sector currently consist of 76.8% of America’s GDP, compared to 22.1% for the industrial sector. This means the majority of Americans make their living by providing services of a menial, professional or technical nature rather than making products.
Though I do not believe this transition is either wise or sustainable, I must admit its impact on American culture is proving to be quite interesting. Just as the industrial age gave us national chains, the service age has created a backlash against them. Sometimes referred to as the “new American localism” many young professionals and others at the forefront of the service economy have expressed a renewed interest in buying locally and investing in their communities.
In many ways this shift can be attributed to the nature of the service economy and the decentralizing effect of technology. For the most part industrial workers are cogs in a machine. Their tasks are often repetitive, isolated, and require low to moderate skill. Free thought is neither valued nor cultivated in this worker, whose greatest virtue is that he is replaceable. The service economy worker must have a very different skill set. Even the most menial of service economy workers has some degree of ongoing interaction with other people, whether they be customers or fellow workers. As one moves up the ladder of the service economy to the higher skill jobs it also becomes apparent that creativity and knowledge are also highly valued traits.
As people are increasingly free to live and work where they want, in jobs that require knowledge and imagination, it is not surprising these people are willing to invest in the communities they have chosen and seek out things that reflect their own individuality. It is similarly not surprising that the cities that best reflect these values are seeing the most robust growth in their moderate to high skill service sectors. Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Boston are all consistently ranked as having the best quality of life, as well as being the best places for young professionals. It is important to note that the criteria these surveys use to rank quality of life usually includes things like quality local cuisine (non-chains), and vibrant creative communities. In this way McDonalds is being replaced as the symbol of American culture and civilization by the locally owned coffee shop.
I am optimistic about this new trend in American culture. While living in Europe I was always impressed by the richness of people’s everyday lives. I found that people their seemed to know a secret that Americans did not, which is that while work may be a science, living should be an art. There are many great and wonderful things that came out of the industrial age. America has experienced tremendous economic prosperity because we fully embraced the ideas of efficiency and productivity in the workplace. However, these values should stay in the workplace. Transferred to everyday life these ideas strip life of all its beauty and dignity, causing us to sacrifice quality for quantity and alienating us from our communities.
Whatever happens to the service economy into the future I hope the American people retain this renewed interest in quality living. Let work be science, but make living art.