America's manufacturing sector has slipped into a pattern of decline that cannot be explained away in terms of temporary or cyclical trends, and this erosion can be traced easily by changes in our employment patterns.
Sixty years ago, nearly half of our labor force worked in goods-producing industries. Today, less than one-fourth do, and the figure is likely to sink below one-fifth by the mid-1980s.
While that illustrates the rapid growth of finance, law, and the telecommunications industry, a closer look reveals an explosive growth in more mundane fields.
For example, the increase in jobs in bars and restaurants has been greater than the total number of jobs in autos and steel combined. McDonald's has a far larger work force than US Steel - 350,000 workers to 142,000.
This brings us to the crux of the problem. We have to consider seriously whether we really want to become a nation of people selling Big Macs to each other.
We have to consider seriously whether we want to be heavily dependent on imports for steel, machinery, and other goods essential to a balanced economy.
Most of course are familiar with one argument: rising from the ashes of our older industries will be high technology industries at the frontiers of innovation, propelling us to dominance in the postindustrial age. Robot-ics, semiconductors, and information services will take the place of steel, autos, rubber, and machine goods in the brave new economic order.
But is that an answer in itself?
I would submit that it is not and that we have to decide as a nation whether we can afford to discard the sinews of industrial strength in our rush to embrace a new, post-industrial era.
The rapidly growing numbers of the structurally unemployed is the human equivalent of our unused industrial capacity; potentially productive resources lying dormant.
While millions line up at unemployment offices, skilled jobs go unfilled. Of particular concern is the unemployment rate among minority teen-agers, nearly half of whom are jobless. This situation has steadily worsened over the past decade. The cumulative effect of persistent and prolonged unemployment among minority young people has left a residue of bitterness and despair.
But apart from the social questions involved, there are the purely economic ones, as well. Economic self-interest alone dictates that we soon address the issue of training or retraining those unqualified to take any job at all.
For future demographic patterns would indicate that the number of structurally unemployed people will only increase, even as our total work force decreases.