- Under a spreading chestnut-tree
- The village smithy stands;
- The smith, a mighty man is he,
- With large and sinewy hands;
- And the muscles of his brawny arms
- Are strong as iron bands.
- His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
- His face is like the tan;
- His brow is wet with honest sweat,
- He earns whate'er he can,
- And looks the whole world in the face,
- For he owes not any man...
- ~ from “The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Behold the village blacksmith, a hero in his time. The centerpiece of any village, and a key part of the local economy, his art came from many years of education and practice. He turned his time and his skill with the forge into money in his pocket and food on his table. Generation after generation, apprentices would train long and hard, believing their dedication and investment of time would guarantee them a lifelong career.
It was a noble profession, but largely a doomed one. Technology emerged with faster, more efficient ways to manufacture the same goods the smithy once forged (and over time, to produce many that the smithy could not). As the new methods rose, the occupation of the blacksmith fell, and it wasn’t long before a former staple became just a specialty craft, practiced by a small group of artists and craftsmen.
This is a story that plays out over and over again as technology marches forward. In the 40’s and 50’s telephone operators were commonplace. Now we have VOIP remotely-hosted PBX systems with computerized voice prompts. In the 80’s if you wanted to take a trip, you called your local travel agent. Now you book your whole trip via Expedia from your smartphone. In each case, large groups of trained, experienced professionals had to watch their occupation fade, and find ways to move themselves into new careers.
So who are the blacksmiths today?
Realtors are fighting tooth and nail to resist the onslaught of technology and consumer empowerment, but with a housing market that no longer offers quick riches for the consumer, how long can 6% commissions hold up?
How about CPAs? As tax and accounting software continues to improve, how long can the human calculators hold their ground? And what would happen to them if the government actually managed to reform and simplify the tax code?
OK, here’s another one (and you should sit down for this one). What about programmers? It’s software that’s driving most of these massive changes, right? So shouldn’t programmers be sitting pretty? Well, yes and no. The issue is that there’s a feedback loop. There are a lot of programmers building systems that make it easier for other people to build systems. An occupation can be made obsolete by democratization. When everyone can easily do something that used to take a trained professional, that profession will decline.
What about you? What would it take for your profession to become the next declining blacksmith? You should give it some thought. Don’t take your career for granted. Think about what you could do to evolve into something new, or at least what you could do to be the last village blacksmith standing under that spreading chestnut tree.