Mama, Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Barbers

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Gene Epstein recently penned an article entitled "Tomorrow’s Jobs" that appeared in the January 5th edition of the financial weekly Barrons. The main thrust of Epstein’s piece is that the demand for "knowledge workers" will increase in the years to come while the demand for manufacturing, agricultural and clerical jobs as well as for butchers and barbers will decline.

It’s easy to follow Epstein’s argument that healthcare workers, computer programmers, and financial planners will be in great demand due to the aging of the population. As Epstein points out, "within 10 years, the number of folks 55 and older will begin a growth trajectory that outstrips that of the younger segment nearly fourfold. The number of U.S. residents 55 and older will rise from 63 million today to 83.7 million by 2014, and 101.4 million by 2024"

Secretaries and clerks will find fewer and fewer opportunities in the future, according to Epstein, as more and more managers that require clerical staff retire. Young professionals already use information technology and do not rely on secretarial staff. Also, government’s use of clerks and secretaries will likely decline in the future as it follows the trend set by the private sector. We can only hope. "From 1992 to 2002," writes Epstein, "a disproportionate share of the increase in the clerical workforce occurred in the government sector; and over the same span, the decline in the number of secretaries occurred mostly in the private sector."

Epstein’s case against butchers is that their work is being done at food-processing plants. That is no doubt true. "Barbers," according to Epstein, "live in the increasingly remote hope that men will desert their hairdressers for cheaper trims." Well, maybe back in New York, or out on that other coast, those metrosexual males can’t imagine tearing themselves away from their stylists. But there is a big old country in between, where guys still get their haircut in shops with red-white-and-blue-stripped barber poles proudly displayed out front.

The world was left with one less barber on December 21st. B.G. French ("Frenchie") cut his last head of hair the day before he died on the sixth fairway at Abilene (Kansas) Country Club. Frenchie was 75 years old, be he never retired, cutting hair five days a week (sometimes more) for nearly 50 years.

Frenchie’s Barber Shop had one chair and one barber, but an appointment was never required. The price of a haircut was seven dollars when he died. Frenchie would sometimes go nearly a decade without raising his prices, despite the onward march of inflation. In fact, during a period in the 1980’s, Frenchie was the only barber in town, and he complained that he had too much business. His economics-trained son pointed out to him that if he would raise the price of a haircut, some of his customers would come in less often and he wouldn’t have to work so hard. "Where else are they gonna go?" his son asked. But, the price of a haircut remained the same for many more years.

Barbers are of course licensed in the state of Kansas, and inspectors from the state capital would come by periodically to inspect Frenchie’s shop. During one visit, an inspector complained that there was hair on the shop’s floor, which prompted Frenchie to reply; "Of course there is hair on the floor, you dumb-ass, this is a barber shop!" It is not surprising that Frenchie’s irreverence for the government seems to have rubbed off (and multiplied) on certain of his offspring.

At funerals in a small town like Abilene, everyone knows everyone. However, there was a young man that no one in the French family knew, who attended not just Frenchie’s funeral but also the viewing, burial service, and lunch held afterward. A little investigating revealed that Frenchie had cut this man’s hair every six months or so, pro bono, as well as provide a few bucks for meals on occasion.

One of Abilene’s favorite son’s, Reagan and Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, would always stop in at Frenchie’s for a trim when in town. Fitzwater had grown up getting flattop haircuts from Frenchie, but in later years just a trim was required around his baldhead. Fitzwater also sent autographed pictures of himself posed with Reagan or Bush 41 that were prominently displayed in Frenchie’s shop, along with autographed hats for Frenchie’s burgeoning baseball hat collection.

Barbershops everywhere are often the meeting place for downtown businessmen who gather to gossip and talk about current events. Frenchie’s was no different. For many years the tiny back room at the barbershop was the place Abilene’s movers and shakers gathered to play liar’s poker every morning. There were plenty of days that the proprietor made more money in the back room than he did cutting hair.

Gabriel Harvey wrote in 1597: "The barber’s chair is the very Royal Exchange of news." Indeed, Frenchie heard his share of news and rumor from his customers over the years. In a book entitled AbileneInSight, Lori Brack quoted Frenchie: "You hear how many divorces are going on, who’s got medical problems. They want to tell somebody and they got me where I got to listen. Sometimes I don’t remember when they get out the door."

Gene Epstein mentions in his article the psychic income that can be earned by knowledge workers in the future. Sure, the work of healthcare workers, financial planners, computer jocks and teachers can be very satisfying. But, imagine serving customers for decades, most of whom you know on a first name basis, and in turn those customers’ kids, then grand kids and in some cases great-grand kids. Frenchie was an Abilene institution, like no computer programmer or personal banker could be.

Young men of good sense and good humor; ignore Epstein, sharpen your clippers and light those barber poles. The lives that you impact will be many.

Frenchie will be remembered fondly by hundreds of people and especially his son.

Doug French [send him mail] is executive vice president of a Nevada bank and a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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