What three Appalachian communities tell us about the history and future of work in America

We live in an age of global disruption. Rapid technological advances, constantly shifting international supply chains and the widespread distribution of increasingly advanced computers via smart phones transform the ways we live and work on a daily basis.

The last two centuries have shown that Appalachia is not isolated from global economic trends, but profoundly affected by them. It’s no different in 2020, when emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence have converged with a global pandemic to radically alter the future of work for millions of people in the region. 

Many Appalachian localities already have seen decades of population loss and anticipated changes to the nature of work in the country will likely accelerate that trend, according to “The Future of Work in America,” a 2019 report by the McKinsey Global Institute. “Without targeted interventions, America’s economic and societal divides could widen in the coming years,” the report warns.

Projections for the future of work often include utopian descriptions of increased leisure time and a rising quality of life. But history shows that advances in mechanization don’t often benefit workers, especially workers in Appalachia. 

The McKinsey report suggests a long-term trend toward a more highly educated, largely urbanized workforce doesn’t favor largely rural mountain localities. But as is usually the case in our region, it’s more complicated than that.

Disrupted explores the future of work in Appalachia through the stories of three communities that suggest multiple paths forward.

Seated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, Gainesville, Georgia’s proximity to “megacity” Atlanta and close ties between the public and private sectors combine to make it one of the Appalachian localities best positioned for the future, according to McKinsey. Yet its reliance on an under-documented, globalized workforce and roots in the problematic poultry industry starkly illustrate the income inequality that often accompanies economic prosperity.

Sevier County, Tennessee, has become a model for counties across Appalachia looking to draw lessons from its world-famous tourism economy, based around Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the mountain culture espoused by Dollywood, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. For its family friendly image, Sevier County isn’t immune to the effects of a global industrialized economy, and a successful tourism economy is no guarantee of widespread prosperity across the economic spectrum. 

Dickenson County, Virginia, shares many of the same challenges faced by coalfield communities across central Appalachia and beyond. As the industry has spiraled into waves of bankruptcy, the communities around them face significant challenges that include depopulation, struggling healthcare systems and failing infrastructure. Prisons have replaced mines as the most stable employer, but a rising generation of leaders hopes for a brighter future based around adventure tourism and telework.

Gainesville, Georgia, Sevier County, Tennessee, and Dickenson County, Virginia, present a snapshot of three communities with different dynamics that will guide them on different courses into the future. Yet they’re all located within Appalachia, and all contain elements that are representative of the region writ large. They illustrate what’s at stake within our own communities, and how we may still be the authors of our own fates.

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