While media and political attention is on the threat of outsourcing, the reality is that out-sourcing is a sideshow in a much larger event. As our time becomes more valuable, everything changes. People disappear from commerce and service for a reason. And it has nothing to do with the election. The more we focus on job loss, the bigger the odds we'll miss an even larger message about what's coming.
All of us should prepare for a very lonely future.
Can we avoid becoming a very lonely crowd? Consider this unscientific list:
• A few weeks ago, while making a morning run to the Kroger's on Cedar Springs in Dallas, I noticed a startling transformation. The experimental self-checkout stations had been expanded. The number of teller stations had been reduced.
• Home Depot has made the same plunge, installing computerized self-check-outs. The change has gone well beyond pilot projects to reduce the number of checkout workers. The chain that was a virtual second home as my wife and I remodeled five houses over the last 10 years has virtually eliminated their once helpful aisle workers--- the wonderful people who told us how to use something as well as where to find it.
• Today, whether you like it or not, you can get up close and personal with any number of airport security people--- but you'll less likely to see anyone who actually works for an airline. In the last month I've flown Southwest, Frontier, and Delta Airlines. I've been through DFW and Love Field in Dallas plus San Antonio, Albuquque, Denver, and Boston airports. The combination of on-line ticketing and automated check-in has made airports a crowded but lonely experience.
• A few days ago, in a morning rush to an Albertson's supermarket in Santa Fe, I had a Kroger de-ja-vu. Albertson's had installed a small amount of automated checkout equipment. To complete their economizing, they had also declined to have any workers at most of their human checkout stations. So instead of whizzing in and out of the supermarket, the experience was more like buying bread in Russia.
• No matter how much money I put in my bank, they don't want to see me anymore. My deposits are large enough that they'll still let me deposit in person but I can take a hint: smaller customers are given a simple choice--- use the ATMs or face a service charge.
This isn't a new trend. I first wrote about it nearly 30 years ago. In "Home, Inc.: The Hidden Wealth and Power of the American Household" (Doubleday, 1975), I pointed out that the common associations with being rich or poor were reversing. The wealthy would exchange their lives of spacious loneliness for the crowded warmth of the poor.
This would be a good place to do some sociological whining but there are plenty of people doing that already. The real driving force behind all this change is productivity--- that fact that all of us can do more in an hour today than we could do ten years ago.
Productivity increases the value of time. It also translates into fewer people per transaction of any kind. The higher value of time changes how we do business. It also changes how we behave as customers.
Skeptical? Then think about this. Thirty years ago there was active debate about whether or not we should be allowed to pump our own gas at gas stations. Some thought it was too dangerous. Some thought it was a tragic loss of service.
Today, we not only pump our own gas, we're annoyed and deeply inconvenienced if we can't complete the purchase at the pump and be on our way. We want to avoid the inconvenience of interacting with another human being.
A lot more of that is coming.
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