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Posts Tagged ‘unemployment’

Do you recall the last time you saw a gas station attendant?

I don’t mean the person behind the counter who’ll ring up the candy bar and soda you buy after you pump the gas. I mean a person who comes out when you pull up, puts the desired amount of gas into your tank and, while the pump is running, checks your oil and washes your windshield. Gas stations used to be called “service stations” for a good reason.

They still exist in New Jersey, which has a law banning self-service gas stations. But pretty much anywhere else in America, the attendant is as extinct a species as the elevator operator. An entire class of employment has vanished, supplanted by technology (card readers and automatic shutoffs for pumps) and a deliberate downscaling of service.

A similar phenomenon is happening now in supermarkets and other stores (Home Depot for one): self-service checkout. Instead of having a cashier scan and bag your items, you do it yourself. Instead of several cashiers, the store needs one person to monitor the self-check lines and fix the occasional malfunction. The store cuts its labor costs, and the customer is made to believe that it’s a convenience.

But these are just two more mainfestations of the ongoing replacement of human labor with machines. At a time when unemployment is perilously close to 10 percent, businesses are looking for ways to employ fewer and fewer people.

The supplantation of people by machines is a theme that John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg and other social critics have expounded on at some length. In particular, once-plentiful agricultural jobs have mostly vanished, as now one corporate-paid farmer with a tractor can do the work that a dozen or two men would have done a century ago.

As the wheel of time turns, we have more people needing work and less work that we need humans for. It has been said that service jobs are the one category that can’t be outsourced or replaced by automation. In at least some cases, the automation is proving that maxim to be wrong.

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