Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Want a job? Deliver, or protect

By Bob Greene, CNN contributor
March 30, 2014 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
Life.com pays tribute to mail carriers, other postal workers and the U.S. Postal Service in earlier times. Here, a rural Vermont mail carrier makes his rounds in subzero weather. Life.com pays tribute to mail carriers, other postal workers and the U.S. Postal Service in earlier times. Here, a rural Vermont mail carrier makes his rounds in subzero weather.
HIDE CAPTION
Classic look at U.S. Postal Service
Classic look at U.S. Postal Service
Classic look at U.S. Postal Service
Classic look at U.S. Postal Service
Classic look at U.S. Postal Service
Classic look at U.S. Postal Service
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: America may end up with only two dominant occupations
  • Greene: One is carrying stuff to people's homes, the other is protecting them
  • He says with the rise of online shopping, more people need delivery services
  • Greene: The other growth field is private security; we employ more guards now

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story," "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War," and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen," which has been named the One Book, One Nebraska statewide reading selection for 2014. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- If the trajectory of American daily life keeps heading in its current direction, the country may end up with only two dominant occupations:

-- Carrying stuff in boxes to people's houses.

-- And keeping a watchful eye on those same people so they don't hurt each other or steal things when they do leave their homes.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

For all the talk about how e-commerce is outpacing the performance of traditional retail sales in brick-and-mortar stores, the men and women who could gain the most from the boom in online merchandising are not Web designers or those who come up with clever new shopping apps, but workers who perform one of the oldest jobs in the world:

Lugging packages from the curb to someone's front door.

It's one task that can't be accomplished in cyberspace. During the 2013 holiday season, according to the Wall Street Journal, retail stores drew only about half of the foot traffic that they did three years earlier. And during the peak holiday shopping period, online sales increased by more than double the rate of sales at traditional stores.

For every shopper who doesn't leave a store carrying a bag full of merchandise, but instead places orders online, there's someone who has to bring those items to the residence. And in the long run, the major beneficiaries of this shift in habits could very well turn out to be the people who undertake a decidedly low-technology endeavor: grabbing a box from the back of a truck and walking with it to a house.

You can already see the effects of this in statistics kept by the United States Postal Service. It's no secret that, in our era of e-mails and texts, the number of first-class letters delivered by the post office has plummeted. As recently as 2008, the Postal Service reported that it was delivering 90.7 billion letters annually. By last year, that number was down to 65.8 billion.

But the Postal Service's numbers for delivering packages, as opposed to letters, have actually gone up. In 2008, it delivered 3.3. billion packages; that had grown to 3.7 billion packages by last year. United Parcel Service says it delivers 16.3 million packages and documents worldwide every day -- 4.1 billion a year.

Some time-honored, pre-digital-era manufacturing firms have figured out a way to make the lug-the-package-to-the-house business model work for them, too. International Paper Co., according to the Journal, "is among the companies profiting from new digital habits. It bought several makers of corrugated cardboard boxes, which now fill with goods shipped by online retailers like Amazon. The Memphis-based paper company said it has a 35 percent market share."

But if carrying boxes is one line of work that has legs, another -- just as old-line -- may become even more in demand as the years go by. We can tell ourselves that our worlds are full of social media friends and amiable followers, yet the growth in industries devoted to protecting us from each other, both on the streets and in the electronic ether, betrays a certain distrust in the purportedly benign intentions of our fellow citizens.

It's not just the checkpoints at airports, and surveillance cameras on street corners, and cybercrime-fighting software offered by manufacturers; Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev, writing in the New York Times, noted, "another dubious first for America: We now employ as many private security guards as high school teachers -- over one million of them, or nearly double their number in 1980. ... What is happening in America today is both unprecedented in our history, and virtually unique among Western democratic nations. The share of our labor force devoted to guard labor has risen fivefold since 1890."

This caution on the part of both citizens and industry may be warranted, but Bowles and Jayadev, reflecting on the melancholy underlying message of this, point out what philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in 1848: "It is lamentable to think how a great proportion of all efforts and talents in the world are employed in merely neutralizing one another."

Neutralizing one another or, more cheerily, showing up bearing boxes. The Postal Service reports that its letter carriers and package-deliverers drive 4 million miles every day. UPS operates a delivery fleet consisting of 96,028 cars, vans, tractors and motorcycles, as well as 237 aircraft. As the inexorable shift to e-commerce becomes the standard way of shopping, those numbers can only be expected to increase.

And the private-security industry? That other growth field? There is an outside chance that it could eventually dwindle: if we should someday decide to put our faith in the sweet intentions and endless goodwill of our fellow citizens, both the ones we can see and the ones who invisibly make their way into our computers.

Until then, though, there is a multitude of home-security and break-in-alarm products for sale online.

And a multitude of men and women hired to carry them to the double-locked front door.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT