The Real American Jobs Crisis Isn’t in Coal Mines, It's at the Mall: 6 Unemployed Retail Workers Reflect

The coal miners parading into the room had reason to clap. Minutes earlier President Trump had announced that he would single-handedly revive the coal mining industry. “The miners told me about the attacks on their jobs and their livelihoods,” he recounted to his suited audience last March, just before inking his name on an executive order to end the so-called war on coal.
“They told me about the efforts to shut down their mines, their communities, and their very way of life,” Trump continued. “I made them this promise: We will put our miners back to work.”
Trump’s vow was little consolation to the tens of thousands of other Americans whose jobs, livelihoods, and ways of life have evaporated since the dawn of the retail apocalypse in 2016. No one is standing at a podium waving a fountain pen and pledging to put them back to work. In fact, no one in Washington is saying much of anything at all about the retail industry’s collapse.
Instead, the president has put all his eggs in one controversial basket, pandering to white working class men with the promise of jobs (and of making America as great as it was in the 1950s, when coal was the nation’s primary energy source). There’s one snag: Other conservatives and even Murray Energy founder Robert Murray, the man behind one of the largest independent U.S. coal mines and a vocal Trump supporter, consider that battle lost. Natural gas is a more pocket-friendly energy source, and wind and solar power are more environmentally friendly. Up against such stiff competition, Murray warned the president that even “he can’t bring [coal jobs] back.” Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg likened reviving the coal industry to resurrecting the telegraph industry. With today’s technology, it just doesn’t make sense.
To put things in perspective, retail employees account for nearly 10% of the total U.S. labor force. Roughly 101,000 retail workers have lost their jobs so far in 2017, nearly half a million positions eliminated since 2001. That’s about 18 times more layoffs than the coal industry saw in the same span. In fact, add up all the coal industry’s current employees and you get just 52,000 people, 95% of them men. Nearly half of America’s retail employees are women — about 8 million, altogether — a figure that jumps to almost 75% in clothing stores.
Cheaper, cleaner energy sources threaten the coal industry. Pinpointing a specific culprit is harder when it comes to retail’s catastrophic collapse. E-commerce giants like Amazon shoulder some of the blame as they cannibalize brick-and-mortar sales. Automated technology too will eliminate 7.5 million retail jobs in the not-so-distant future, if financial services firm Cornerstone Capital Group’s predictions are accurate. And then, of course, there’s the imminent decline of shopping malls, built (and arguably overbuilt) at a breakneck pace over the last four decades.
Credit Suisse foresees a quarter of America’s shopping malls closing in the next five years, sending thousands of employees packing when they do. Even those shopping centers that avoid the wrecking ball may see traditional anchor stores—what’s left of them, anyway—vanish. Sears, JCPenney, and Macy’s have together closed about 550 stores since 2014, with Macy’s alone eliminating 10,000 jobs in the process. More downsizing is anticipated for early next year.
Mall corridors aren’t faring much better. The list of retailers who filed for bankruptcy protection this year reads like a suburban mall directory: Wet Seal, BCBG Max Azria, Rue21, True Religion Apparel, Perfumania, Vitamin World, and ToysRUs, among others. About 1,000 Radio Shacks, 350 Gymborees, 200 Gaps, and all Bebe, American Apparel, and The Limited stores have already closed, along with more than 1,000 other doors bearing familiar names.
The retail apocalypse simultaneously descended like King Kong on America’s cities, leaving a trail of abandoned storefronts in its wake. One particularly hard-hit thoroughfare was on the Upper East Side of New York, which saw iconic flagships like Polo Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan Collection close in unison with Juicy Couture, Diesel, and all Scoop NYC locations over the last two years.
A few months after delivering promises in Washington, Trump reiterated his devotion to working families. “It’s finally time to…fight for the jobs our great American workers deserve,” he proclaimed to an Arizona crowd, “and that’s what we’re doing.” Whether retail workers factor into that statement remains to be seen.
As nearly 8 million women face an uncertain future in the retail industry, Glamour is sharing six of their stories. The following interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.* Click through to see them all.

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