The Computer That Ate Suburbia: A Small New Jersey Town in a Global Economy


ibmsystem360My first memories of seeing how the global economy or globalization could affect a small local region, like the town where I grew up in North Jersey, occurred when I was a child. My father worked in the textile and apparel industry at the same company for almost all of his working life, a span of about thirty years. As a low level manager, he was given some hiring authority and practiced a bit of nepotism. He hired one of his brother-in-laws and two of his best friends.

 My father worked the night shift when things were less chaotic and he would sometimes take me to work with him. He was always excited about the progress that the company was making as it moved into the world of technology and globalization. The company started out as a small company in a small town with a small staff, but soon there was expansion, mergers and acquisitions. The company, which began in 1912 and incorporated in the early 1920’s, moved to a much larger facilities. Soon thereafter, it went from a private company to a public company with almost two-thousand employees and sales in the amount of slightly less than one-hundred million dollars. This soon became over a billion dollars in a relatively short period of time.

One night my father said that there was something exciting that he wanted to show me. He took me to the company’s brand new computer room where I was dazzled by the new mainframe computers. They were massive and fearsome to me as a child and looked like giant rectangular robots, which could transform into something frightening at any moment. I’d never seen such a thing. It was like something out of a science fiction movie. The mainframes whirred and hummed as my father explained to me that the rooms in which they were kept had to be kept cold. I was around eight or nine years old and I remember being scared, standing there freezing. Taking my father’s hand, I looked up in awe at the monsters that stood before me. I remember the man who ran the computer department saying to me, “Don’t be scared. This is the future and it will change the world. You can touch one if you want.” Holding my father’s hand, I reached out gingerly and put my hand on one of mainframes and felt it vibrate. I believe they were IBM System 360 models. My father looked down at me and said with amazing insight and wisdom, “Remember this moment. Computing is the future and you are going to have to be a part of it”. His perceptions of this new technological world proved quickly to be frighteningly accurate.

Less than six months after my father showed me the mainframe computers, I overheard him and my mother talking. He sounded upset and my father was a man that was always happy, upbeat and positive. It bothered me and later I asked my mother why he was sad. She told me that he’d been forced to lay off half of his staff as their jobs had been computerized and automated. This forced my father to have to lay off his own brother-in-law and his two best friends whom he’d hired. He was devastated and so were they. It would be many years before he was able to mend the friendships he had with these men, but just a few short years before the world would change before my eyes.

Within about ten years after my father showed me the new computer room, the company became one of the largest companies in the textile and manufacturing industry with assets exceeding a billion dollars. A few years later a Forbes article would refer to that same company as “The Incredible Shrinking Company” as it rose like a phoenix and then plummeted into bankruptcy, having lost money every year from 1977 until 1985. It tried to hold on by selling off its least profitable units, but by the mid-1990’s survival was doubtful. With borrowed money, it restructured its business practices and moved into other areas of the textile and garment industry and branched out. Things went up and down for a while until the company was eventually purchased by an Israeli company in partnership with another company from the Netherlands Antilles. After many failed attempts to get the company back on its feet, it was completely bankrupt by the mid-1990’s. I saw firsthand what technology, automation, industrialization, outsourcing and globalization could do to families and we were among the lucky.

The U.S. textile and garment industry continues to falter through present times. The U.S. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that “Jobs in textile, textile products, and apparel manufacturing will continue to decline rapidly by 48% through 2018 as advances in manufacturing technology allow fewer workers to produce greater output, and growing imports compete with domestically made textile and apparel products” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Career Guide to Industries (2010-2011 Edition), http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs015.htm.).

Those monsters, those mainframes that I’d seen in my father’s office became the monsters that eventually ate the American dream of many of the families whose head of household once worked at my father’s company. Next came its equally monstrous friends, Outsource, Import, Technology and Automation. “Imports in the apparel industry increased from 5% of total consumption in 1970 to 26% or from $1.3 billion to $22 billion annually (Murray, Lauren A., Unraveling Employment Trends in Textiles and Apparel , Monthly Labor Review, Textile/Apparel Employment, August 1995.

It would be years after that day in the new computer room at my father’s company that I would even begin to fathom the interconnectivity of the economies of the world’s nations and how that powerfully co-dependent and interdependent global relationship could both foster and fester. Each year as more and more players enter the game, the world’s economy becomes more and more inclusive globally. Smaller nations can trade on the same field as the larger nations, causing markets to intersect, overlaps and become entangled with one another.

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About Ms. Hamilton

Ms. Hamilton is a longtime New Jersey resident and a veteran of the U.S. Army. She attended Katharine Gibbs College in Montclair, New Jersey, where she completed the Paralegal Studies Certification Program and is also a State of New Jersey Notary Public. She has worked in the legal field for many years, mostly in the area of quasi-criminal law. She completed her B.S. in Information Technology at Capella University in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is currently completing her M.A. in Public Policy at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Her areas of interest are social policy and criminal rights.
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3 Responses to The Computer That Ate Suburbia: A Small New Jersey Town in a Global Economy

  1. Ms. M says:

    A reminder of the benefits and problems associated with technology and the desire to become “big business.”

  2. digenion says:

    This reminds me of how Rutherford is hurting now and how events can change a town completely. There is still a factory section in Moonachie in Bergen County today. My uncle’s job was once desired but later phased out due to technology. Technology changes things completely.

  3. Steve Sandor says:

    This offers a great counter to the “wonders of technology” narrative that we are flooded with today. It seems too often that society holds up the benefits of innovation without taking a moment to ponder the costs. I wonder whether your father saw technology as the sole culprit or were there other factors that he, as a manager, saw leading to the downfall of the company? For example, did the company not foresee the redundancy that technical innovation would create?

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