The manufacturing industry is uniquely embedded in the American collective imagination. This blog does not have the budget for any “man on the street” interviews, but if I asked 10 people for their perception of manufacturing, I bet I’d get 11 opinions. Whether the industry brings to mind the union strikes and assembly lines in your history book or fat cat executives and the betrayal of offshoring could depend on your age and location. Manufacturing images – “Rosie the Riveter,” the “maker” movement or high-tech spinoffs – connect to the distant past and the economy of the future. No other part of our economy brings to mind so many (sometimes contradictory) narratives.
So what does it mean that in 2015, manufacturing is the talk of the town? States across the union are starting programs to promote manufacturing and using words like “rebirth” and “renaissance” to describe its future. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to publish a mini-series on the past, present and future of manufacturing.
Discussing the future of manufacturing can be problematic: in addition to the difficulty disentangling its past, the woes of manufacturing are intimately familiar to American society. While many economic changes happen at a remove (very few people spend any time thinking about stock market bubbles, mortgage lending or credit default swaps) manufacturing is a tangible narrative. I’ve yet to visit a place in the US that doesn’t tell a story about how sometime in the past the “good jobs” left the region never to return. When that story isn’t about taking some finite resource out of the ground, it involves manufacturing something. Manufacturing is associated indelibly with the “good old days” a nebulous postwar period in which, in the public imagination if nowhere else, society generated wealth somewhat equitably and upward economic mobility was improving.
There are other reasons it’s difficult to discuss manufacturing rationally. Differing political opinions take a similar fact (manufacturing’s decline) and connect it to wildly varying causes (NAFTA, the decline of unions, and multinational corporations on the left, and environmental regulations, the strength of unions, and burdensome government on the right). It’s even connected with complicated cultural shifts such as views about masculinity itself – some curse the day when a man stopped being able to provide for his family and his country from the sweat of his brow (for an excellent update on this in the “maker” age, read Debbie Chachra’s “Why I Am Not a Maker” in The Atlantic).
What you know already is 100% correct: recent decades have not been good to manufacturing (in the US, anyway). According to BLS data, manufacturing employment reached its peak in 1979. The decades since then have seen a number of large drops in manufacturing employment – in the early 80s, early 2000s, and most severely in the period leading up to the recession (2007-09). Since 2010, manufacturing employment nationally is on the rebound, but as skeptics of “the manufacturing renaissance” are quick to point out, the number regained is nowhere near the number lost since pre-recession levels.
Given this tangled history and long decline, the idea of a rebirth in manufacturing might seem not just counterintuitive but counterproductive. Even if the freefall of manufacturing jobs has slowed, do we really want to attach ourselves to an industry based on a romanticized past? If we can’t even agree on what brought us to this point, can we actually predict what will happen 20 years from now?
This series will look at these questions from a few different angles. I’ll try to apply a nostalgia-free look to what’s happening on the ground to see what’s actually underlying the recent interest in manufacturing.