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May 15, 1988|JAMES FLANIGAN | James Flanigan writes a twice-weekly column for The Times

If you're looking ahead nervously to prospects for jobs, it would cheer you to look back.

Recall the predictions of the early 1970s that there wouldn't be enough jobs for the baby boom generation, then entering the work force. Recall also that women at work were scarcely even considered in those predictions.

And then think, as you survey almost two decades of the greatest jobs growth in U.S. history--not to mention the surge of women in the work force--that, happily, modern computer-aided predictors can be as wrong as Nostradamus.

For once again the talk is fearful. A bottleneck is foreseen, and a scarcity of good jobs is predicted as the first wave of the baby boomers--those born in the late 1940s to early 1950s--hit the ranks of middle management. Too many people and too few management slots, say the predictions.

And no consolation prize. If you don't get the top job, you can't coast toward retirement either, because every company is running lean. If you slow down you may be cut out or, worse, run over by the even more populous second wave of the baby boom--those born in the mid-1950s--coming along behind you.

The outlook, alas, seems to be that most men and women will, as Thoreau said, "lead lives of quiet desperation." All other things being equal, say the doom-sayers, we could even be entering a period of rising middle class unemployment.

What should you think? Think for yourself. Ask yourself if it is likely that all other things will be equal? That there will be few great job opportunities for masses of educated American people in their 40s?

The only rational answer is of course not. Technological change alone will alter the script, as it always has. Think about the computer. It has made middle management insecure at every company in America. Yet it has created more jobs than it has displaced.

Consider American Hospital Supply, which has a computer program that buys all the pharmaceuticals--of whatever brand--for the hospitals it supplies. AHS can buy and sell the drugs at discount prices, and the cash-strapped hospitals can cut expenses. Result: hospitals don't need purchasing agents. Thus a job or two is lost at the hospital, but jobs are gained at AHS, at its software supplier and at its computer supplier.

Now do you understand why computers and computer-related industries are displacing automobiles as the largest employers in the U.S. economy?

Did anybody predict that happening 20 years ago? Of course not. In fact, as recently as the late 1950s predictions were that roughly 140 computers would be all the world would ever need.

Management expert Peter F. Drucker, a great student of business history, points out in his book "Innovation and Entrepreneurship" that false predictions happen all the time. He remembers how the experts believed in the early '70s that the participation of women in the work force would continue to decline. Instead it ballooned in the next decade--with little difference in participation between married and unmarried women, or those with children or without.

Sure, some of that labor force participation was spurred by 1970s inflation and by the sudden need for two incomes if families were to maintain their standard of living. So what? The point is not what caused the shift in employment patterns, but that employment patterns changed to accommodate the demands of the day.

Similarly, because baby bust followed baby boom, markets for children's products were supposed to shrink. Yet Toys R Us is one of the most successful retail chains and children's clothing is one of the most reliable products of the garment business because baby boomers are indulging their children, the way they were indulged in the prosperous decades following World War II.

Indulged in the 1950s, as in stuffed with Twinkies and Oreo cookies. Years later, those same Americans were said to all be devoted dieters. Yet some of the most successful entrepreneurs of the 1980s have opened chocolate chip cookies shops and restaurant chains.

OK, the past was unpredicted. So what's ahead?

Enormous technological change. Are you aware that in the next 10 years fiber optic cables will replace the telephone lines and bring into every American home an immense expansion of communications capacity? What will be at the other end of those fiber optic cables? A combination television-telephone-computer probably--let your imagination be your guide. But how many ways will such a technological change also alter the whole business of reaching and interacting with customers?

Specifically, could such a change affect the outlook for sales jobs? A pertinent question because many companies have been shifting middle management personnel into sales, reasoning that at least sales jobs move goods. But that may not be a trend that will last.

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