Old Sturbridge Village, the historical restoration village of old homes in central Massachusetts may seem an odd place to begin thinking about the future of work. In fact why be concerned with the future of work at all? The answers are intertwined.
The first reason is that automation has already replaced New England factory work so there are fewer jobs in general. Second, artificial intelligence and the internet are replacing even doctors and nurses.
An app on your iPhone can take an EKG, measure your blood pressure, and adjust your insulin flow or pacemaker. The third reason is climate change. Every aspect of life and economics will change in the next 10 years.
Everything will be electrified as energy generation shifts to 100% from renewable sources. Public transport and ride sharing will jump and the worldwide food system will become regionalized as many of today’s industrial agricultural areas are damaged by drought, floods and soil depletion. Excess consumerism and waste will be shunned.
Recycling and repurposing a famous quote, “New England, we’ve got a problem.”
How can we respond across the region to these challenges? That’s where Old Sturbridge Village comes in. As a living repository of productive skills and entrepreneurial culture, it has a lot to teach us.
Those early New Englanders made and repaired this town’s clothes and shoes, had generational ladders of hand-me-downs, hooked rugs, quilted from old fabrics, shared tools and worked together to build barns.
Some of them even mined silver in the off-season like at the John Greenleaf Whittier Farm near North Essex Community College in Haverhill. The Towle Building in Newburyport and Paul Revere’s artworks link back to those farmers with their side gig of mining.
Yankee frugality was about using your stuff well, keeping it in good repair, recycling it at some point, and sharing it with your friends so everyone didn’t have to own everything.
How does all this translate into thinking about the future of work? First, our work will be different than in the centralized work of the 20th century and different still from the agrarian small-town roots of the 17th and 18th centuries.
But it will require similarly diversified skills and personal initiative. Some of it will become decentralized side gigs and multiple sources of income. Maybe, a graphic artist designs, makes and sells T-shirts uniquely made from thrift store finds.
Maybe, the teacher has an online crafts business out of her “she shed” in addition to her public school job. Or the desk-bound office worker leads a mushroom foraging class with cooking and nature photography thrown in.
The existence of the “We’ve Got Junk” phenomenon points to an opportunity for pickers, restorers, curators and resale mavens.
We don’t have anymore space for landfills, and waste disposal is very expensive now. Might as well creatively redeploy all that old stuff. Throwing stuff away will come to be viewed as clueless if not outright wrong.
Second, it will be a localized phenomenon. Some places will thrive and some places won’t get it. Greater Newburyport and maybe most of New England already gets it to some degree. Culture counts and as Newburyport’s 1970s renaissance attests, our culture of Yankee pride, frugality and innovation still lives in our regional DNA.
But the largest growth in jobs will relate to upgrading our infrastructure to cope with climate change. There will be waterfront, maritime and office jobs in planning and building offshore wind farms.
There will be jobs for construction workers, solar installers and vertical urban farmers in redeployed old mills. More expensive transportation will make local production possible for items like beer and furniture.
A plan is needed. It’s going to take a village to make it happen well, and it will need to be both an entrepreneurial startup effort and a government-supported plan. It will only work by actively evolving into an ecosystem that organically emerges from the individual participants. All of us will be needed to successfully navigate the change.
Think about it, read about it, talk it over with friends at The Grog or Dalton Club. Bring it up at your Rotary or Chamber meeting. We must all become the new Yankees of New England: Independent, innovative and more self-reliant if there is to be good work in our region’s future.
Ron Martino lives in Newburyport.