INDIANAPOLIS — As the leaves begin to fall, young people are heading back to school. For many, this is the senior year of high school. For others, this is the first year at college, in the military, or working at a full-time job. For each, it means answering the question: “So, whatcha gonna do wit ya life?”
Little do they know they will spend the next 60 years trying to answer that question.
Whereas, at some distant date, schooling meant education; today it means occupation. Some policy-makers want to stress maximizing the future earnings of students as the goal of schooling. But all students, it is believed, should be “job ready” when they graduate from high school and/or college. They should be “trained” for the workforce, ready to meet the expectations of today’s employers, as well as prepared for an uncertain future.
Go back a generation to the late 1990s. Few then anticipated manufacturing would lose 4.8 million jobs in the next 20 years. But at that time, who could have suspected 6.7 million jobs would be added to old, dull FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate)?

“Certainly,” you will say, “automation in the U.S. and cheaper labor abroad foretold a diminishing need for workers in manufacturing.” And we would all shake our heads knowingly in agreement.

But could we have predicted the same result in FIRE? Aren’t those jobs mainly shuffling paper, rubber-stamping, initialing, and triple-checking the obvious? Clearly, automation could eliminate much of that tedium. Why didn’t FIRE jobs decline? What’s the difference?

Service to people. Manufacturing is making or processing millions of things with little personalization. FIRE, however, like health care and food services and drinking places, involves direct, semi-immediate, seemingly personal attention to individuals.

What are we seeing today? Slow growth, even contractions, in retail trade jobs, but rapid growth in warehousing and ground transportation jobs. Why? Because shoppers have found they really don’t care what the salesperson thinks or recommends. They’ll use their computers to judge a product, get it delivered to the doorstep, and send it back if it does not meet their expectations.

That’s service to people. Impersonal? Sure, but face-to-face relationships with poorly trained, inexperienced sales clerks in a store as welcoming as a mausoleum is no longer acceptable.

For the next generation of workers, those now or soon entering the labor market, computer interactions are as natural as telephone calls were to their parents. Personal services, but not necessarily face-to-face, are on the rise. That’s where the jobs are growing and will be growing.

It’s not just assisted living for the elderly or infirm. It’s personal services by people who know what they are doing and why they are doing it. That’s where the higher incomes will be in the future.

Artificial intelligence will advance the machine age, but genuine intelligence and sensitivity will prosper. 

Mr. Marcus is an economist. Reach him at Follow his views and those of John Guy on “Who gets what?” wherever podcasts are available or at