Of course numbers can be over interpreted, and almost always seem to be.

On 19 December this item was carried by Shelf Awareness (I think it was them, though I’m no longer sure as I cannot find the reference in their archive): “24/7 Wall St. reviewed annual employment data from 2008 to 2017 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, to create a list of ‘the fastest dying industries.’ Or less sensationally, businesses that have shed jobs as tracked by the government.

No 24. on their list is ‘Book and periodical merchant wholesalers,’ where they estimate recent employment of 36,184, 38 percent lower than 10 years ago. ‘Bookstores and news dealers’ — not that those are in any way the same thing, but these are government categories — ranked No. 13, as their estimated employment of 81,000 people is down 43 percent; ‘Support activities for printing’ comes in at No. 12. On the bright side, while categories called ‘other publishers,’ ‘newspaper publishers’ and ‘directory and mailing list publishers’ all appear on the list, book publishers are not included in any of those declining segments.”

The list of the “fastest dying industries” can be found at the link above, which takes you to their USA Today source. Are we so desperate that we have to clutch at straws as flimsy as this. I’d feel a bit better if I was certain than “book publishers” were absent from the list because employment was increasing, not, as is probably more likely, that it’s just not one of the categories the government uses. However, our own experience shows us that declining employment numbers don’t tell the whole story. For most of my working life book publishers laid off this category of worker after that category of worker, replacing them with freelancers — ironically often the self-same individuals — while steadily increasing the number of books published. Proofreading, copyediting, design are now mostly done by freelance workers, but they are of course still being done. The fact that part-time workers and freelancers don’t need to be included in medical, vacation, pension and other benefit plans makes dispensing with full-time staff a temptation lurking behind every bump in the road.

Does all this not just confirm the need for caution in the face of statistics? For a government department focussed on employment these numbers may well be fascinating. For the rest of us  — beyond a need to deplore layoffs, zero-hours contracting, and freelancification when they come up — there’s not too much to make of this information.

On the other hand, should we really be deploring freelancification? Aren’t we always being told that automation is going to put us all out of work and force us to bask on the beach every day? Heck, Dan Dare was telling me in the 1950s that by now we’d all have infinite leisure time ‘cos robots would do everything for us. Surely this is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Roll on universal basic income and single-payer health care.