What Will Happen to the Low-Skilled Worker in the Self-Service Economy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe are clearly seeing a movement to a self-service society.  Customers are being expected to do more and, very surprisingly, they are happily doing it.  This is especially odd given that they are paying the same prices as they did when things were full service!  You can go through the regular checkout line, have someone scan your items and someone else bag them, or you can go through the self-service, scan things yourself, bag them yourself, and pay the exact same price.  You would think no one would go through the self-service lines, because who doesn’t like “something for free,” and yet there are many people who would rather bag their own eggs.  What does this say for the service provided?

Unfortunately, I think we’re very close to having everything be self-service.  Just as full service gasoline dispensing has become a thing of the past (except in the few states where customers aren’t allowed to pump their own gas), I think soon we’ll go to the grocery store and find only self-service lines.  Note that checking at the airport has become self-serve with a ticket agent just there to slap a tag on your bags and check your ID.   Also, expect to go to fast food places (and even sit-down restaurants) and enter your orders through a kiosk.  You might even go to a window and pick up your own food and bus your own dishes, given the trend.  This is driven by the advancement of technology (which allows such a level is self-service), increases in labor cost thanks to the healthcare law (Affordable Care Act) and minimum wage laws (I’m guessing we’ll see a lot of self-service kiosks in Seattle), and a general acceptance, or even preference, by consumers to perform self-service.

 It may be that many of the labor intensive, boring, dangerous, mind-numbing jobs will be automated out of existence.  Things like fruit picking, weed pulling, garment making, and ditch digging.  With this automation, however, will come the ability for a few talented and skilled people to produce enough to provide for far more than themselves.  Imagine the capability for a single person to build a home a day due to some new machine.  Or the capability for a single person to grow enough food for a thousand people.  Or ten-thousand people.  There will be jobs for people to fix the machines and for people to run the machines.  There will also be jobs for people to design the machines, and maybe jobs to build the machines, although a lot of that will be automated as well.  There just won’t be jobs to o the things the machines can do.

It may be that there will not be many low-skilled jobs left, meaning it will be difficult for people who are not above average in intelligence and who don’t somehow get the chance to learn the skills needed to have a career.  The ability to just turn in an application and learn on-the-job may be gone.  This will mean that there will be a whole group of people who cannot break into the workforce and provide for themselves. 

Yet productivity will be so high that a lot of people will be able to just sit home and be provided for, much as the many people on perpetual welfare do now.  Currently it is difficult for the people working to pay for those on welfare because they need to produce for both their families and other people’s families.  If productivity increases enough through automation, however, maybe your home, food, and clothing will just be free if you wish, leaving work for only those who both have skills and want more than just the basic sustenance.  If providing for someone else is just a matter of pushing a button one more time, a few people could provide for hundreds or thousands of others. 

Maybe some people would think this was great – no more working dead-end jobs and  people wouldn’t need to work unless they wanted to (and had the ability to do the jobs that were still needed).  I’m not so sure, however.  When you work, even when it is in a job that some would see as easy or low-skill, you are doing things for other people.  The janitor makes office buildings and schools safe and clean so other people don’t get sick.  The short-order cook feeds hungry people.  The gardener makes homes and offices habitable and attractive.

And that is where dignity comes from.  Doing things of value for other people.  What used to be called an “honest day’s work.”   You’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Contact me at vtsioriginal@yahoo.com, or leave a comment.

Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning advice, it gives information on a specific investment strategy and picking stocks. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing.

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