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Gary Horton: It’s no bug’s life in modern economy

Full speed to port

Posted: November 23, 2010 10:03 p.m.
Updated: November 24, 2010 4:55 a.m.

While not all Signal readers always agree with opinions voiced in this column, few will disagree that this past Saturday was a stunning autumn day.

Light rains shimmered upon fall foliage and green grasses as our valley stood enshrouded by beautiful misty clouds. With such natural glory as our background, Carrie and I stepped out for a hike through the Summit Nature Park.

Heading out, I noticed a vintage 1968 white Volkswagen Beetle was parked down the street, looking back up at me like an old friend, waving from a distance. I owned the same model Bug back when I was 16, and oh, how I loved that car.

Old-style VW “Bugs” aren’t nearly as ubiquitous today as in prior decades. Then, they were everywhere; but now time has passed the Bug up.

Those VWs, such common features of our youth, are now 42 years old. My Bug was a deep blue model upon which I’d lavished every aftermarket trim and trinket available.

Half of my teenage $1.85 per hour paycheck went to dating expenses — the other half was poured into that Beetle, souping it up with chrome and accessories to make it something special.

My tricked out blue VW stood out and looked good.

It’s hard wrapping my mind around the idea that my Bug would be an aging, 42-year-old car today. Forty two is an old car. But most don’t regard Beetles as old. Bugs are too much a part of who we are; too fond a memory. But these once-hip cars have become automotive graybeards.

Compared to modern cars, they’re not only uncomfortable to drive — they’re inefficient and even unsafe. We may love these old Bugs, but they’re obsolete.

Time waits for no car, I suppose. And that’s true for most things, including people.

Shifting gears, we read good news that California just added 39,000 new jobs. More jobs are expected as we gain recovery traction. Two long years after hitting rock bottom, we finally have hope for better days ahead.

But let’s not fantasize of a recovery that, like a rising tide, automatically floats all boats.

Many boats will rise. Yet while some are now fine and many regain jobs, joblessness remains high at 12 percent.

Getting that number down will be a hard slog. I have a suspicion that we may not see unemployment dip below 7 or 8 percent for a decade — if ever.

This time, economic growth won’t float all boats without significant change in the workers themselves. All boats won’t float until workers acquire the new trim and upgrades required to trick themselves out and roll back their own advancing obsolescence.

Something beside financial misery has happened during these four years of recession. Technology, automation and outsourcing have all marched on at an accelerating pace.

Companies, pressed for increased efficiency, latch on to savings provided by these advances. In many industries where four workers were once needed, today only two or three will get the job done.

Tougher still, after four years of technological advancement, many jobless find their jobs are gone for good, made obsolete by ever-advancing technology.

Some displaced workers may feel a little like that 1968 VW Beetle parked down my street. We’re fond of the “old us,” but if we’re honest, we see that competing new models are so much faster and efficient.

Job losses from technology aren’t President Barack Obama’s fault or former President George Bush’s fault.

They’re not the fault of the Chinese, or your company, or illegal immigrants. Time always marches on, technology speeds ahead, and like aging cars, we become obsolete when we’re too content with how we are, rather than committed to becoming what we need to be.

I loved my old blue 1968 VW Bug. But the truth is, it got only 22 miles per gallon, was slow, unreliable and, had I even been hit, I would have been squished like a … bug. At 12-percent unemployment, many workers feel like squished bugs. But simply hoping for recovery won’t unsquish anything.

We’ve got to invest sustained effort in enhancing our job skills and appeal. Many require updating to be attractive in the crowded job market. Some need a little new chrome here or trim there. Others require a total rebuild to measure up to the new competition.

 While American workers aren’t quite aging cars parked on a street, the notion of old VW Bugs brings the need for constant self-renewal and investment into sharp focus. We surely can’t stay parked in neutral, hoping for nostalgia to reclaim our jobs.

Time, technology and change march on. Many will need to shift into high gear to keep up and stay relevant. 

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesday in The Signal.


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