I remember trips to the mall as a child. I remember the various chain stores that made up a shopping trip – maybe for clothes for a new school year (my parents preferred the Montgomery Ward Outlet Store for that, I shit you not) or just to kill time walking around indoors during the coldest part of the Chicagoland winter. Occasionally I think about the long gone names that were retail in my childhood. Carson Pirie Scott. Wieboldt's. Venture. Ames. LS Ayres. Zayre. Marshall Field. Montgomery Ward. Service Merchandise. And of course the giants – JC Penney, Sears, K Mart, and so on. Today of course it is almost all gone.
The 1990s were the judgment day of the big local department store. Regional powerhouses seemingly all became Macy's overnight. Marshall Field. Hudson. Bon Marche. Wanamaker. Jordan Marsh. Famous-Barr. Gimbel's. I'm sure you can remember your own, too.
The decline of many of the oldest names in department stores was an indication that during the 1980s the retail industry had recklessly over expanded. Suburbs along major highways decided in the 1970s that throwing up a giant mall was a guaranteed property tax goldmine, and with the economic slowdown of 1992 we finally admitted that there was only so much consumption Americans could do. Retail looked a bit worse for wear, but it was still a living thing. Then the Internet came along.
Now talk of the "retail apocalypse" is widespread and even Sears – ironically enough the "Amazon" of its day with the encyclopedic Sears Catalog – is sucking fumes. There is no mystery; there is no real reason to go to Sears when Amazon will sell you the same thing without the hassle. When one does go to Sears, as I did about a year ago for some household things when I moved, the sales staff recommend with uncomfortable regularity that you should go home and order the product, which is not in stock, off their website. More recently I visited Sears on a business trip on which I had forgotten to pack under-shirts. Not only was I quite literally the only customer in the store, but I had to search around for a good five to ten minutes to find a high school aged employee who could check me out. Her exact quote when I said "Excuse me" was, "Oh! You scared me." Busy night.
The real cost here is not a price paid in lost nostalgia for familiar brand names. The issue is the hundreds of thousands of (generally mediocre at best) retail jobs eliminated or soon to disappear. Retail jobs, remember, are the subpar replacement jobs that hoovered up people whose manufacturing jobs disappeared. These jobs are already one or more steps down the ladder. They barely pay enough for an adult working full time in the position to break even at poverty. And now even these barely adequate jobs are going to disappear.
There is no reason trying to "save" retail. First of all, it can't be done, and second, these jobs are not good enough for the people who hold them to care enough to fight for them. 30 hours weekly folding clothes at Penney's for $9/hr never sent anyone to the picket line; it's the kind of job that you shrug off when you lose it. It is disposable employment.
And that is precisely why this is so troubling. Even the crap work that people end up doing when they can't get a real (read: decently paid, possibly with benefits) job is going to become scarce. What precisely is an adult who used to work in a blue collar industry and replaced that career with punching a cash register at K Mart going to when that is gone? What is the next step down?
We are about to confront something that it is clear American politics is not capable of confronting: the possibility that we now have an economy of staggering size and wealth that cannot produce enough full-time jobs for the number of people in this country. We can't all make a living getting paid to Uber one another around, and there are only so many menial service industry jobs – making coffee, flipping burgers, etc. – to keep a limited number of people afloat. Structural changes to the economy that our political system refuses to do anything but encourage are going to force us to confront this unprecedented reality sooner rather than later. For years the standard palabrum for economic transition has been to tell the newly unemployed to learn some other skill and transfer to another section of the economy. What happens when there isn't one?