Wednesday, November 2, 2011

More people, fewer jobs and poorer service

Seems ironic, doesn't it, that in a time when the world's population is exploding; an estimated 7 billion people as of Monday, we are eliminating much of our paid employment? As we eliminate these jobs there is additional "shadow work" being added to our daily lives.  This shadow work, as coined by Ivan Illich 30 years ago, is all the unpaid labor done in a wage-based society.

In an editorial, "Who's doing the grunt work? You are.", Craig Lambert describes how there has been a significant rise in additional unpaid activities in recent years.  For example, consider how gas stations were once full-service, with attendants that checked oil levels and air pressure in tires, washed windshields and even processed payments.  Now all of this is "self-service" e.g. no service provided.

With a dearth of jobs here in the US, even for highly qualified college graduates, why don't most businesses any longer hire people to bag groceries or provide full-service at gas stations?  Why is it that many companies no longer employ a local receptionist, or machinist, but rather outsource these jobs to someone living overseas? Could it be the quest for keeping things priced as cheaply as possible has been a greater value than having quality, local service?  Now, rather than having people employed, albeit in sometimes "grunt work", we have increasing numbers of people on unemployment and countless others who have simply quit looking for work. With these layoffs those still employed may be trying to do the work of two or more.

Our quest to make things as cheap as possible comes at a cost to us all.  In addition to the increased unemployment, consider the added stress of trying to figure out how to self-service your check in at the airport, the additional time it takes to find the product you're looking for at the minimally staffed store, or the frustration of trying to get technical help through an automated phone system. Seems we are now all stressed, either because we have a job or because we don't.

Perhaps it is time for us to take a step back from this quest to make things always cheaper.  As someone who likes a good deal just as much as the next guy, I'm beginning to realize that being cheap comes at a great cost. More people and fewer jobs doesn't sound like a recipe for a healthy, balanced or civil society. Stress mounts as we all try to do more work with less help from others.  Just maybe the best deal for us all is to start paying a bit more for our goods and services, lest we be overtaken by shadow work. I'm guessing there are plenty of unemployed people of all ages out there that would be willing to reduce our shadows, if we are so willing.

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