It’s ages since I last licked a stamp!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Apartheid made some things easier for those of us who were disenfranchised, and one of those things was the choice of careers.

To be a player in the intellectual economy, one either became a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher.

Not surprisingly, a number of people who became stalwarts of the struggle came from those professions as did our most celebrated citizen whose birthday it is today.

Your children and my children no longer are confined to those niches. The world is their oyster. At the same time, the life choices that they need to make today are far more complicated.

Consider this: a number of jobs that existed just a short while ago are now extinct.

For example, if you were working for this newspaper in 1980 which was the year I had my first byline (a story printed in the paper under my own name), you might have had a job as a typesetter.

This was a highly specialised and well-paying job where the Linotype machine operator entered text on a 90-character keyboard. The machine assembled a matrix, which is a mold for the letter forms, in a line. The assembled line was then cast as a single piece, called a slug, of type metal.

The casting material was an alloy of lead (85%), antimony (11%), and tin (4%) producing a one-piece casting slug capable of 300 000 impressions before it wore out. (Yes, there was another highly paid person doing that job too.)

There used to be a darkroom where photographs needed to be developed and printed. These pictures were then turned into colour separations of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (another highly-paid, highly-specialised job).

(Because there were different processes involved, the colour picture on the front page of this newspaper would usually be printed a week before – which is why the front page picture would be something not time critical – such as a Diwali or Eid or Christmas picture. But I digress…)

Here are some of my predictions around businesses that will become extinct over the next generation.

Music stores. These have been shrinking steadily over the past years and survive in this country only because we have expensive broadband and no iTunes store. Both of those will change very soon.

Department stores. You might not yet have bought into the idea of buying shoes online and having them delivered to you the following day, but it's coming. And the Consumer Protection Act ensures that you get your money back.

Fuel service stations. As hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") becomes commonplace, cars will increasingly be run on natural gas rather than petrol or diesel. Alternatively, they will run on fuel cells or be fully electric cars that one plugs in to charge overnight. In any event, increasing fuel efficiency means fewer trips to the filling station which means fewer stations.

The Post Office. Seriously though, when last did you write a letter and actually lick a stamp and post the thing? I get nearly all of my bills electronically these days. You should too. Which of course leads us to…

Paper. Right now, there's an entire eco-system built around paper production which involves planting of trees, logging them, pulping them, bleaching them (requiring chemical support), and so on. These massive rolls are then transported to the newspaper or magazine printing presses. But newspapers and magazines will in the future be digital. No printing costs for the media house, no distribution costs, no wet newspaper in rainy weather or late deliveries or dogs chewing it up. So Mondi and Sappi and all of the other giants in paper production are doomed industries.

There are some businesses which will pretty much last forever. The world's oldest profession is always going to be with us and will simply change its level of sophistication.

There will always be a need for good doctors and good teachers, but bad doctors and bad teachers will increasingly be replaced by interactive technology.

Food will always be a viable business, mainly because we would be disinclined to buy fruit or vegetables from an online catalogue.

But we will also increasingly be growing food for our own consumption at home. A hydroponics setup on a small apartment balcony can produce lettuce and tomatoes and potatoes and other basics throughout the year.

Which then begs the question: what advice should you be giving your kids as to what their career choice should be?

Happy birthday, Madiba. You've helped create an interesting world for future generations.