Image of Gatlinburg, TN

The history and future of work in Appalachia (100 Days in Appalachia)

100 Days in Appalachia asked me to think about the “the future of work” and what it looks like here. I considered how these kinds of stories often lean on utopian images of people with a high quality of life and plenty of leisure time — despite repeated historical patterns showing that technological advances like mechanization don’t often benefit workers and their families, which ultimately hurts communities.

Read Disrupted, the 100 Days in Appalachia series on the future of work.

For this series, I focused on three communities that represent a swath of themes and dynamics that repeat in variations across Appalachia.

In Georgia, Gainesville‘s proximity to metro Atlanta and tight-knit ties between public and private sectors make it one of the Appalachian localities best positioned for the future, according to the McKinsey firm. But its reliance on an under-documented, immigrant workforce starkly illustrates the income inequality that often accompanies economic prosperity. The pandemic exposed the cracks in the system even more.

In Tennessee, Sevier County‘s Dollywood, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have become models for other counties looking to emulate their success in attracting visitors. But Sevier County also suffers the ill effects of a global industrialized economy, and even a successful tourism economy relies heavily on part-time seasonal jobs with few benefits.

In Virginia, Dickenson County is emblematic of the challenges faced by coalfield communities across central Appalachia. As the coal industry has spiraled into waves of bankruptcy, historic mining communities face 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 on different paths. Collectively, they illustrate what’s at stake in Appalachia, and how we may yet author our own fates.

Read the three-story Disrupted series at 100 Days in Appalachia.