William Watson: Only fools and governments think they can predict our economic future

For reasons I’ll get to, I’ve been scrolling through Statistics Canada’s Canada Year Book for 1967, something the miracle of the internet allows anyone to do from the comfort of home. The table on wages and salaries is especially interesting. In 1965, the latest year for which data were available, the average truck driver in Montreal made $2.26 an hour, the same as a labourer. Bricklayers and masons made $3.12, same as plasterers, of which there aren’t many left today. Electricians averaged $3.20, while plumbers and steamfitters topped the blue-collar charts at $3.25 an hour. 
There’s been a lot of inflation since then, of course. To be exact, what cost $1.00 in 1965 costs $7.74 today, even if some things that were available then aren’t today, like rotary telephones, black-and-white TVs and Bobby Orr rookie cards. The plumber’s $3.25 an hour would be $24.77 today, but as of September 2017 Statistics Canada says Montreal construction union plumbers were actually making $51.71, more than double that. (Toronto plumbers got $65.41, the highest rate in the country.) 
What’s especially interesting in the 1967 table are the data for “office occupations, male” and “office occupations, female.” Yes, they actually say that: “male” and “female.” The best-paid male office occupation was “senior draughtsman,” complete with that British spelling. It paid $135 a week in Montreal in 1965, which is $1,044.85 in 2017 dollars, or a total of $52,242.50 for the 50-week year people worked back then. By coincidence, a 50-week/2,000-hour year at today’s average wage for “business, finance and administration” occupations ($26.12 per hour) would produce exactly the same $52,240. On the other hand, average wages in “management occupations” are $43.27 per hour today and in “senior management occupations” $51.43. So the exact comparison would depend on where exactly a “senior draughtsman” fit into 1965’s office structure. 

Women’s occupations, not surprisingly, paid less, although that doesn’t tell the whole story. A “senior secretary” made $89 a week compared to male “order clerks” ($88) and “intermediate clerks” ($80). What’s striking is how few of the female jobs still exist. Calculating- and bookkeeping-machine operators are gone. So are switchboard operators and (for the most part) typists. And so are stenographers, both junior and senior. Stenography was a highly skilled occupation. My mom took dictation like a whiz. She also had to type legal documents, without error, through many carbon copies (Google those if you have to). I remember when the first on-screen typing test she took brought back an error rate of zero. “Well, I don’t make mistakes,” was her disarming explanation. 
But “stenographer” isn’t anywhere to be found in the 2011 National Household Survey report of occupations. Today if you want to dictate, you talk to a machine that types out what you say. Unlike my mom, it sometimes makes mistakes: To err is virtual. 
And yet, despite the disappearance of many of these officially “female” occupations, female employment is higher now both in absolute and proportional terms than it has ever been. The stenos and typists and switchboard operators didn’t all fall into permanent unemployment. They learned new skills and got new jobs. 

What’s the point? The point is that things change. Big time. We may not see that day to day (though we often claim to). But look far enough back and the changes knock you over. I remember 1967, kind of. Maybe in sci-fi stories back then people talked into machines and writing came out. But no one predicted that’s how people who were alive at the time would end up doing it. The comic strip detective Dick Tracy had a watch that did all sorts of wonderful things. But no one thought ordinary folk would have watches that out-wizarded Dick Tracy’s.
In 1967 when you saw someone walking down the street talking out loud to themselves you figured they were crazy (in the vernacular then permitted). Now you just figure they’re on Bluetooth. Nobody in 1967 predicted the major pedestrian problem 50 years on would be people walking into buses while thumbing their phones. 
There’s a conference in Toronto this week about which policies were transformative over the last 50 years and which will be transformative over the next 50. It’s fun and instructive to look back. I’ve just read 1967’s two budgets (one in June, a second in November). Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp was worried about reducing inflation, increasing productivity (partly so as to reduce inflation) and paying for all the new social programs the Pearson government had introduced. He was right to be worried. I doubt it ever entered his mind that a half-century later the federal cabinet would be wrestling with a proposal for free trade with China. China was like the far side of the moon in 1967. And Mao was not a free trader. 
Look back? Yes. Look forward? Unless you believe change will stop, save your brainpower.


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