Written By Sherwood Kohn

Economists have long been predicting a change in the U.S. economy: from an industry-based to an information-based model.

Apparently the change is upon us. Two economists, Hiranya K. Nath, professor of economics at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and Uday M. Apte, associate professor of operations management at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy in Monteray, California, have estimated that the information sector’s share of the total gross national product (GNP) was 63 percent in 1997 and is undoubtedly greater by now.

That means that the value of information-based goods and services produced in the U.S. in one year is greater than that of the nation’s industrial output. We make more money trading data than we do selling products from our rapidly disappearing assembly lines.

The upside of that phenomenon is that the U.S. dominates the world’s data-processing capacity. The downside is that we now outsource much of our industrial output; a whole generation knows how to play computer games, but does not know how to screw in a lightbulb.

Okay, I am exaggerating a bit about the lightbulb thing. But not much.

As recently as 50 years ago, most public schools offered what was known as “manual training” classes or “shop,” in which students learned how to read or draw plans and use basic tools to make practical objects from wood or metal.

The purpose, according to educators of the time, was not vocational training, but “improved perception, observation, practical judgment, visual accuracy, manual dexterity” and “the power of doing things instead of merely thinking about them, talking about them, and writing about them.”

For the most part, those courses have disappeared from the curriculum, partly because they cost too much, but largely because as a nation, we no longer value such skills. And the result is that a whole generation (with the possible exception of farmers’ children) does not know what to do with hammer, saw and nails; preferring instead to call up service people to perform such basic tasks as building bookshelves, hanging pictures and changing faucet washers.

It seems unfortunate to have become so helpless, so “unhandy,” so dependent upon others for simple domestic tasks. For a brief period between 1968 and 1972, hippies embraced a self-sufficiency fad (does anyone remember the Whole Earth Catalog?), but the movement went the way of the tie-dye shirt, cars became too complex to repair yourself and everyone descended to a state of manual cluelessness.

Now we all Google service companies when we need to assemble an IKEA table. Of course, most of the youngest generation knows how to text message on their smart phones. As I said, the economic model has shifted. Can your kids screw in a light bulb?