This isn’t your grandfather’s economy. We used to make stuff; now we shuffle paper (and electrons). The American economy keeps evolving in unpredictable ways. So what is it turning into? The third in a series of quarterly supplements jointly presented by The Atlantic and National Journal explores the future of U.S. manufacturing and white-collar services in a global marketplace. And the picture isn’t as grim as you might guess.
Maybe the best place to start in trying to understand the economy’s tectonic shifts is by examining the historical graphs in this issue, which show how U.S. manufacturing has collapsed—and been transformed—since World War II while white-collar services have gained preeminence. This analysis offers a useful context for the cover article, which asks: Is there a second act for American manufacturing? Bruce Stokes, who traveled to western Pennsylvania, finds that the next wave of manufacturing may bear a passing resemblance to the first. In place of the humongous steel mills left empty by foreign competition, specialty mills—smaller and smarter—are thriving, each surrounded by a cluster of businesses that form a sort of industrial ecosystem.
Where this future will happen may come as a surprise. Ronald Brownstein traces the geography of U.S. cities that manufacture goods for export and finds places that you might not expect. Derek Thompson looks at two domestic manufacturers—a biggie and a small fry—that have learned how to sell their wares abroad. The global marketplace, of course, trades more than manufactured goods. T.A. Frank delves into the success of U.S. white-collar businesses in selling their services overseas, whether by peddling financial advice or licensing Care Bears.
There are other reasons not to despair. On a personal level, Alina Tugend offers some pointers on finding a job that you’ll like even if the economy zigs while you would rather zag. On the back page, James Fallows offers the most comfort of all, in describing the structural strengths that the U.S. economy continues to wield against its competitors. This is a resilient country, after all, and it has survived the jolt of economic transitions before. Why not again?
This article appears in the December 11, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.