Slate.com has an article this morning about the shrinking number of sales jobs: Death of a Salesman. Of Lots of Them, Actually: The troubling disappearance of salesmen and how it helps explain America’s economic woes, by James Ledbetter.
Here are excerpts:
Maybe Willy Loman was a little ahead of his time. His demise in Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman wasn’t intended to predict the downfall of an iconic American profession. But surveying today’s scarred employment landscape, one fact stands out starkly: America has stopped creating sales jobs at the frantic pace it once did. And whether you like dealing with salespeople or not, their economic health is critical to the health of the American economy as a whole.
From 1950 to 1980, sales represented one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country. In the 1980s, sales was by far the largest job-growth category, increasing 54 percent. That growth slowed in the 1990s, and by 2007, the number of sales job was shrinking. No other job category has experienced a drop this sharp in the same time period.
In his classic 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell discussed how sales—and its close cousin, advertising—were at the heart of the cultural changes of 20th-century America. For better or worse, mass consumption became the engine that powered not only the American economy but also its value system and psyche. Getting people to spend their money became a kind of secular religion that was necessary to overthrow an older Puritan order. “Selling became the most striking activity of contemporary America,” Bell wrote. “Against frugality, selling emphasized prodigality; against asceticism, the lavish display.”
…for much of recent American history, sales jobs functioned as a pillar of the middle class. Over the last few decades, the American economy has generated a large number of high-skill, high-paying jobs, and a large number of low-skilled, low-paying jobs. The middle, however, is being “hollowed out,” in the phrase David Autor used in an economic paper published in April, and sales is a major component of that shrinking middle. The strength of sales jobs is that they can be reasonably high-paying but typically don’t require technical training or other specialized skills. When those jobs disappear, the people who hold them will often be pushed down the wage ladder or even out of the workforce. Sixty years after Willy Loman, that is our tragedy.
It is increasingly clear that jobs that were plentifully available for middle class folks — jobs that helped create the middle class – are disappearing. And the implications of this trend are pretty frightening for the overall health of our economy, and really frightening for people who actually lose their sales jobs.