New Ways to Earn a Living

One of my kids started studying the industrial revolution for school and he asked me a question:

“Dad, do you think the industrial revolution made the life of ordinary people better or worse?”

It’s a good question, and I suspect the various answers you’d receive from different people would say as much about the person answering as it does the situation. The question also got me thinking about another revolution that’s affecting the way ordinary people earn a living today.

The industrial revolution of the 1800s drew people from the countryside into the city, transforming them from farm laborers and home industry workers into factory workers. This trend did a lot of things, but one of the most obvious is that it moved jobs from the country to the city. It made winners and losers. Today the potential to reverse that trend exists and is gathering steam. I think this is good news. Whether or not it actually happens depends on how individuals see the new reality of the “internet revolution” and make use of it. Just like the industrial revolution, the internet revolution makes winners and losers. Let me give you an unfolding example using a little place called Gore Bay, Ontario, the place where we do most of our shopping.

Gore Bay became a town in 1890, and it’s current population of 900 is more than it’s ever been. Walk down Meredith Street today and you’ll see old, substantial buildings that were originally made to serve much more economic activity than they do today. Ask any old timer and they’ll tell you that every shop along Meredith Street had a thriving business in it. Saturday nights, in particular, were a beehive of shopping activity, with stores open until midnight, movies shown in the community hall, and people socializing while business thrived. Not so today.

Fast forward to 2015, and Gore Bay’s business scene is struggling even though the local population is larger than it’s ever been, and even though each person today buys and consumes much more than they did during the 1950s. Strictly speaking, the economic scene of Gore Bay should be much larger than its ever been because we’re buying more than ever, except for one thing.

The downturn in local business began with the trend to off-island shopping that started in the 1980s. Somehow people still think they save money driving 2 1/2 hours each way to the nearest major city to save 20% on groceries. But off-island shopping is nothing compared to the trend of online-shopping. Now you can save much more than 20% without ever starting your car. At the click of a mouse the post office is fast becoming the one place in town where more goods change hands than most other businesses in Gore Bay. Buying online is part of the internet revolution, and while it’s definitely taking sales away from businesses large and small (both in the country and the city), it also offers new possibilities for economic growth.

Thriving economically in rural areas like Manitoulin Island, where I live, is much easier when you supplement serving only the local market, and more emphasis on serving the whole world with the help of the internet. What little places like mine need is a new understanding that the internet steals sales and jobs in one way, but it offers new possibilities in return. That’s something the industrial revolution never did. It was a one-sided trend that removed power from the little guy. By contrast, the internet revolution both threatens the livelihood of little places like Manitoulin Island, but it also offers new and profitable opportunities for little places.

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The economic life of my family, for instance, is based on internet work I’ve developed since the early 1990s here at the end of Bailey Line Road. Here I am “at the office” back in 1995,  and I see a few others doing the same thing these days. Not enough yet, but there is the beginning of a trend that could make or break my rural corner of the world.

The internet means ordinary people have a chance to reach customers in a way they never have before. Need some examples? People in big city Canada are enjoying some of the world’s finest grass-fed beef from Manitoulin because it’s being sold to them online. The head of the information architecture department at a large international company now lives and works online from a small town on Manitoulin Island. An art studio in our area has moved from seasonal sales to year-round sales with their online presence.

Years from now, a teenager somewhere might ask his dad: “Did the internet revolution make the life of ordinary people better or worse?” As with so many things in life, it all depends. It’s not so much about what happens to us, but rather how we deal with it.

Posted on November 23rd, 2015