I knew when I saw my uncles driving Nissans and Isuzus on their farms that the economy had changed. But the collapse of the American automobile industry is only one small part of what is becoming an enormous shift in our economy. We are fast becoming a country without jobs. Yet, somehow, we're still denying it.
In the early 1980s, the first wave of plant closings hit blue-collar workers in the steel, auto and garment industries. Economists told us these workers would never get such well-paid jobs again. We saw and heard about the lost homes, marital breakups, even suicides. But, collectively, we didn't shed a tear or sound an alarm.
Maybe we believed, after all, that people without education and fancy skills didn't really deserve nice homes, or to send their kids to college or to go on vacations. It was a new world, we told them, where you need education and skills if you want to make the bucks.
And so skill training became our new national obsession, as people up and down the occupational ladder hustled back to school to learn computer, technical and managerial skills.
This became part of the national agenda when the U.S. Department of Labor issued the Workforce 2000 report, declaring that there would be a shortage of workers with adequate skills and training by the end of the century. Schools and educators were sent scurrying in perhaps the largest realignment of American education since the Sputnik era.
There's only one problem: Where are the new jobs that these newly skilled people are supposed to do? Look around and you'll see that the economy is delivering something quite different. There are no jobs for them.
We began to see this with the collapse of the boom years on Wall Street. No longer would an MBA and a smile guarantee a young person a six-figure income. Then we saw what happened with bloated middle management. Scaled-back work forces, computer technology and new organizational structures made much of it obsolete.
Now, even college-educated, middle-class folks were losing jobs. But we justified these job losses as just trimming the fat in lean times.
Yet the signals of the last several years are clear. By any measure, we have gone way beyond trimming the fat, and have cut deep into our productive capacity in virtually all sectors of the economy.
It's not merely General Motors laying off 74,000 workers and closing 21 plants over the next three years, the collapse of the paper empire of Donald Trump or the distress of the retail giant Macy's.
It's the serious problems at Digital, the No. 2 computer company, and Cray, the maker of the super-computer of the future, and even at giant IBM. Or the fall of Orion pictures and United Press International. So much for the computer-information industry pulling us out.
Add the free-trade agreement with Mexico, which will spur further job loss, and also add extensive layoffs in public-sector employment, and the job picture is dismal.
It's like the advertisement I saw at my campus: ''Wanted: Clerical worker, knowledge of Word Perfect and Lotus, must have pleasant disposition and ability to work with others, 20 hours a week, $6 an hour, no benefits.''
No wonder there will be a shortage of workers. Who is going to do such skilled work for this little money? Where's the big payoff for this secretary who trudged off to night school to learn computers?
Or the college-educated woman I know, who had worked before having kids, and who just went back to work -- at McDonald's. They need the money.
Introductory Sociology told us that Americans define themselves in terms of occupations: "I'm a teacher or a plumber." But I don't think that's right. I think Americans always defined themselves in terms of their employer: "I work at IBM," or Caterpillar or Aetna.
And until very recently we came to expect that a reasonably intelligent or ambitious person could expect a stable job with a stable employer, maybe a chance for advancement and certainly benefits. These were the jobs that inspired the dedication to a company that only the Japanese seem able to achieve today.
But that's all gone. By some estimates, we are three to four times more likely to change jobs than our fathers or mothers were. Sure, there is work out there -- work all up and down the occupational ladder that will never turn into a job. Make-work, temp-work, crap-work. Work where you will always be looking over your shoulder, looking for a pink slip and for another job with benefits and some future.
It doesn't matter if the economy climbs out of the recession. Many Americans won't, as the loss of real jobs continues to accelerate. Whining about poor education, a lack of job skills or the decline of the work ethic amounts to little more than the computer-age version of blaming the victim.
As in the scene in ''The Wizard of Oz,'' where the dog Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard is only an illusion, we, too, need to admit that much of our economy is smoke and mirrors, especially in its ability to provide jobs.
And, indeed, it is a time for heart, brains and especially courage.
Tom Juravich, professor of labor studies at the Pennsylvania State University Great Valley campus, wrote this for Newsday.