Horse-and-Buggy Workers in the Modern World

Berkman, a one-time dental student, began working at the music roll plant in 1975 after impressing officials there by creating his own homemade music roll. He still loves player pianos' mechanical intricacies and old-time feel, but says he might not have stuck with his job if the newer, digital models had not come along to keep things interesting and somewhat modern.

"The roll business is no longer the largest part of our business," he says. "If you'd liken it to RCA Victor, if they'd stuck to the 78 they would no longer be in business."

Lost Jobs of the Future

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't bother to compile separate figures for the number of workers in occupations as rare as milkman, typewriter repair technician and lighthouse keeper, according to Mike Pilot, chief of the bureau's Division of Occupational Outlook.

But because of automation, market forces and other factors, there are more prominent modern-world occupations that could one day be headed the way of the 78-rpm record.

For instance, there were 54,000 U.S.-based telephone operators in 2000, but Pilot's division predicts their numbers may shrink to 35,000 in 2010.

Meter readers, ubiquitous to many modern homeowners, may one day evoke the same nostalgia as milkmen, as more utility companies read meters remotely. Their numbers are expected to fall from 49,000 to 36,000 this decade.

Farmers and ranchers — icons of rural America — also appear to be fading at a rapid rate, Pilot says.

Perhaps the most endangered occupation classification Pilot's division tracks is railroad brake, signal and switch operators. There were an estimated 22,000 of them in America in 2000, but as automation takes effect, there are projected to be just 9,000 jobs in the field in 2010.

"A lot of the brake and switch operators were the people you used to see on cabooses, and you don't see a lot of cabooses any more," Pilot says.

It can happen in the blink of an eye.

"You never really think about it and then you turn around and all of those people are gone, and when you do see it slipping and you talk to these people, it's really kind of sad," Liebhold says. "Work is a good and noble thing, and people take pride in their jobs. … When those jobs do go away, it's a terrible, life-altering thing for them."

Misplaced Nostalgia?

So one day, people may be nostalgic for meter readers, but should they be?

"Very often, people look back on these curious things and remember them as the good old days, which are not always too accurate," Liebhold says. "Harm can be done if people have romantic sensibilities on the past that aren't really true, and then they use that to project onto the future."

For example, he cited the nostalgia for old-fashioned trolleys that is often expressed by people who never rode them.

"In actuality, it was pretty documented at the time that people hated trolleys," Liebhold says, adding that people complained that the seats were hard, the cars were hot in summer and cold in winter, and some stops forced them to dodge passing auto traffic.

"One reason buses really dominated the market … is they were a lot more comfortable," Liebhold says.

But still, the continued existence of old trolleys, and occupations, can be enlightening.

"You gain insight," Liebhold says. "It's very difficult to really understand the complexity of the world we live in. And by listening to the stories of others, you start to see life through a different prism, and how things really get done. It's all about learning."

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