One of the most profound experiences of my life occurred in an office, on my very first job. I was all of 16 years old, and I had begun my journey into the world of work at a daily newspaper called The Morning Call, in Paterson, New Jersey. Except for delivering the paper to subscribers for 35 cents a week, this was my first real job, a part-time gig as a clerk in the circulation department after high school every day. It was the very first time I had worked at a desk and collected a paycheck.
I loved it. For the first time in my life, I got to work with smart, lively, and passionate people. It wasn't exactly The Front Page, but the Morning Call offices were rambunctious, a place of unlimited energy and fun. And for a kid whose dad worked in a dye house, this was a very big deal: white-collar work in a blue-collar family.
Then one day, the job was gone. The newspaper was being closed down, a victim of declining advertising revenue and falling circulation. Suddenly, the building once filled with so much energy and life was transformed into a funeral parlor. Everywhere, colleagues embraced and sobbed. They mourned not merely the loss of employment; they grieved over the loss of a vibrant community of people creating something of great value. I wandered sadly out of the building that day, a part of my innocence at least momentarily lost. That experience forever shaped my thinking as a journalist and editor.
Today, we are witnessing what might be the largest wholesale export of nonmanufacturing jobs in U.S. history—a major reason for America's "jobless recovery." And the jobs now being lost to low-wage countries are ones we never thought we would see disappear. This is not drudge work. Many of these are brain-powered jobs in technology, design, accounting, medicine, and law that required hefty personal investments in higher education—positions that paid between $75,000 and $150,000. They are jobs that are at the heart of the middle class.
Much has already been written about the phenomenon of offshoring, of course. The general consensus: We'll face a painful transition, but we'll get over it and thrive—just as we did with the loss of agricultural and manufacturing jobs. Besides, we're told, this massive job migration will lift the economies of other, poorer nations, providing U.S. companies with new opportunities to sell their goods. The 35,000-foot-high analysis is detached, sterile, and remarkably naive and insensitive. Rarely, if ever, is it informed by the perspective of the displaced who now struggle to meet mortgage and tuition payments, food and utility bills. It's like covering a war from the cockpit of a B-52 bomber instead of from a battlefield. Yet that's largely how one of the most important stories in recent memory has been told.
This month's chilling cover story is intended to correct that oversight. The stories gathered by our reporting staff are frightening and heartbreaking. They suggest a disturbing structural change that could have vast consequences for the American economy and the American way of life. It's why Intel Corp. visionary Andrew Grove has warned that our software and information technology industries may very well suffer as precipitous a decline as our steel industry did decades ago.
It may be that competitive organizations have no choice but to play the labor arbitrage game to survive. It may be that a new wave of innovation and creativity will lead to new industries and new jobs. But in the meantime, millions of smart, talented, diligent people are losing something, and that will change them and their families forever. Their loss should never be discounted, dismissed, or ignored. It's something I learned when I was 16 years old.
A version of this article appeared in the Table of Contents - April 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.