Gold's Gym and the Future of Work

by BIll Johnston

Recently, I expressed doubts about an Atlantic Magazine article predicting the end of work. Work is not disappearing, it's growing and changing.

If work won't die, how will it change?  Which occupations will diminish, and which will grow?  Which jobs will be destroyed by technology, and what engines of job creation will emerge?

Good as Gold?

We can learn something about this process from Gold's Gym.  When Joe Gold sold his Venice Beach weight-lifting club for $50,000 in 1970, he had no idea what the company would become. By the time he died in 2004, Gold's Gym had 550 locations, and was worth $158 million.

Today there are more than 700 Gold's worldwide, staffed by some 40,000 employees.  What do these people do?  They are front desk clerks checking in members, personal trainers teaching fitness classes, child care workers tending toddlers while Mom and Dad work out, sales staff signing up new customers, various managers and supervisors, and many maids and janitors constantly cleaning up.

Gold's has become a leading example of the explosion of personal services over the past half-century.  The fitness industry, a business that mostly did not exist fifty years ago, has half a million employees in the US, including more than 267,000 personal trainers.

things we never knew we wanted

Personal trainers are part of a broader occupational trend toward services that support recreation, health, and entertainment - activities that earlier generations may not have known they wanted.  Wealthy societies demand more leisure "pastimes," which ironically have become huge engines of job growth.

There are many examples of this trend.  Yoga was generally considered an odd religious ritual in 1970.  Today, yoga classes are a $10 billion industry.  In 1970 a few lucky MIT engineers could play Space Wars on Digital Equipment Corporation mini-computers.  By 2014 video games had become a $21 billion industry.  Americans spent $6 billion on international travel in 1970. Last year they spent $221 billion.

These previously unimagined leisure activities are labor intensive. All those hotels and restaurants, airlines and theme parks, video consoles and casinos create millions of jobs for waiters and waitresses, cashiers, hostesses and gaming workers.

Service with a $

A similar trend has reshaped health care employment.  New technologies have improved health and extended life.  This too, turns out to be very labor intensive.  Health care employs hundreds of thousands of doctors, and millions of nurses, nursing assistants and home health aides.  Alongside these traditional jobs stand a dizzying array of specialized occupations that hardly existed in 1970, such as physical and occupational therapists and aides (591,000 workers in 2014) mental health therapists and aides (669,000), diagnostic sonographers and radiologists (548,000) and pharmacists and pharmacy technicians (644,000).  Just keeping track of the billing employs 182,000 medical records coders.  

Although these growing occupations differ from each other, they share some common characteristics.  One is customer service - the skills of listening, assessing needs, and interacting effectively with others.  Another recurring theme is the ability to keep up with changing professional standards, research and trends. Obviously doctors, pharmacists and nurses, not to mention video game programmers, must keep up with evolving technologies and cultural trends.  What about fitness instructors, whose routines may zoom from Cycle/Spin, to Zumba, Pilates, Yoga, Tai Chi, LeBarre, or Tabata, not including water exercises such as Aquaticize, Aqua Pump, and Hydrotone.  (I'm not making this up).

It is certain that we do not know what services will be in demand 45 years from now, when this year's 22 year olds will be eligible for retirement.  But we can predict that many of them will have had careers in personal services that did not exist when they found their first job.