I am not a person who will be keeping his job as automation persists on its steadfast journey. I work the graveyard shift stocking shelves at a grocery store. A future in which my job can be done by a machine is not only imaginable but inevitable. Come that time, the job will be done faster and to a standard which no human can attain. It would be ludicrous to think a company would not make that shift as the technology becomes available.
I’m a union guy through and through — United Food and Commercial Workers Union, to be exact. I act as a union steward at my store, educating my co-workers in their rights according to both the law and their contracts. I take pride in this endeavor. So much pride, in fact, that some find it annoying when, as a supervisor during my shift, I do not pressure people to stay late or skip breaks.
But I look forward to the day that my colleagues and I are replaced by machines, and I don’t think this runs contradictory to my progressive values.
As you might expect, this viewpoint is controversial among my union brothers and sisters. At quarterly meetings, members will often share their anxieties regarding self checkouts, automated price tags, and even giant, unmanned floor-cleaning machines that roll up and down each aisle ominously. While I do find these machines a bit creepy — and they pose a pesky obstacle when stocking freight — I remain unswayed in my vision of the future.
The consequences of ‘unskilled labor’
You’ve likely heard the term “unskilled labor” when describing jobs that tend to require little prerequisite knowledge or training — often hard labor or customer service jobs. I have been seeing a lot of backlash on social media regarding this term, labeling its use as classism. The argument is that those who have access to better — i.e., more expensive — education and training think of potentially unprivileged people as “unskilled,” regardless of the skills expected of those who perform these jobs.
I agree. And there’s research that supports this claim.
A 2013 study published in Personnel Psychology, a journal that “publishes psychological research centered around people at work,” found that the burden of “emotional labor” on service workers is alarming. The study’s subjects, when expected to exhibit emotions they weren’t naturally feeling to appease customers, reported various ill psychological effects from emotional exhaustion to insomnia.
In an article on the study, HuffPost interviewed Doug Pugh of Virginia Commonwealth University, a researcher whose work in the field of emotional labor was cited in the study. Pugh compared a service worker’s ability to tame a difficult customer with a false cheery demeanor to a detective’s “ability to use various emotion management strategies to manipulate criminal suspects.”
“Managers can also recognize these legitimate job demands,” he added, “and the skills they require, and compensate appropriately.” While the comparison to criminal justice work may be hyperbolic, it’s fair to say these sorts of jobs have a measurable impact on the psyche of those who perform them.
The physical toll of hard labor should not be discounted. With workers frequently expected to perform repetitive tasks, lift heavy objects, and work on greater time restraints, no focus on safety in the workplace can prevent injury. What’s worse? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that half of all severe workplace injuries go unreported.
Automation is going to happen no matter how long we deter it through striking and lobbying and protesting.
When the risk is being interrogated, drug tested, and possibly losing pay in an already underpaid occupation, I understand why people fear reporting their injuries. As a worker in a fairly laborious job myself, it’s even hard to set a legitimate injury apart from the daily aches and pains of doing the job.
On an even more insidious note, companies implement incentives for the number of days without a reported injury, offering small rewards such as a party or a gift card drawing for reaching a milestone. This turns employees against each other for breaking the chain, leading to underreporting via intimidation.
From an anecdotal point of view, I can confirm all of this. My job requires both hard labor and customer service. I’ve seen people go home broken and defeated. I’ve seen people return from leaves of absence not fully recovered because they can’t afford not to work and pick up the potential for overtime. I’ve seen people cry in the back after being berated by a customer, only to regain their composure and return to the floor for more.
These are not jobs for humans.
The power dynamics of customer service
Front-end supervisors are, of course, encouraged to route customers to self-checkout machines, reducing the overall demand for paid human labor. At my store in particular, but probably in varying numbers around the United States and perhaps the world, customers are often hesitant or downright obstinate. They claim that they prefer the ability to converse with a real person. A machine cannot provide for them what a human can, the ability to socialize.
And don’t we all crave that?
As the barriers among consumers and wholesalers and manufacturers continue to fall, the benefit of a brick-and-mortar establishment, beyond quick access, is the human touch. It is a place where people will serve you. This is the value appended to the experience, the justification for retail markups.
This is the value of condescension.
Retail establishments, through the expected notion of “the customer is always right,” have established and enhanced the value of looking down on other humans. There should be no place in which a person believes he or she is always right.
Much like one should not romantically proposition a person at work, that same unhealthy power dynamic is why a customer service situation is not an opportunity to socialize. While you may think, as a customer, you are being perfectly pleasant, the employee must always remember that you can turn on a dime and “rein them in” at any point. It has happened to that employee countless times already.
If you’re looking to socialize, try a context in which everyone is on equal footing. My favorite rule regarding propositioning people in the workplace was posed by my favorite podcasters, the McElroy brothers, and I’m paraphrasing: “Don’t hit on someone unless they’re in a position where they can run at full speed away from you.” I apologize for forgetting which brother said it, but this is a rule that should be applied to most social situations.
I would argue that there are exceptions to these rules in the realm of small business, but I’d also argue that small businesses are a) less beholden to the culture of customer service that larger businesses have led us to expect and b) less likely to embrace or require automation. Perhaps, if you get nothing else from the rest of this article, this can all be another great reason to explore the small businesses in your area.
The inevitable demise of capitalism
The company I work for set a yearly goal of increasing sales by 5 percent and decreasing labor by 5 percent. It doesn’t take a lot of calculation to assume this is an unsustainable model. However, it is sort of symbolic of capitalism as a whole. Constantly increasing profits, the ultimate goal of capitalism, requires constantly selling more and paying less. Eventually, one would think, you would sell out of everything and have nobody on the payroll to reorder or restock.
But that’s why automation is going to happen no matter how hard we fight it. Automation is the answer to this dilemma — a way to reduce labor costs to zero while still getting work done. As this technology becomes more ubiquitous and affordable, it would be crazy for any company not to jump on board.
The continued advancement of science and technology is a benefit we should not stifle.
And why should we be fighting to maintain these terrible jobs that injure us and keep us awake at night? If technology is providing a solution to the requirement for humans to do mindless labor and demean themselves for the satisfaction of others, why are we not embracing it?
While I’m going to continue my argument, I hope you realize I am absolutely being facetious here. I know what you’re all thinking. A very large group of people will lose their jobs and become displaced. How will they live?
Like I said, though, automation is going to happen no matter how long we deter it through striking and lobbying and protesting. Automation is the next evolution of capitalism and, short of eliminating capitalism entirely, it will come. We can keep shouting our vocal cords raw or we can sit down for a moment and think.
When such a large portion of the workforce is displaced, who will pay for the products to keep these companies afloat?
This is the future we’re hurtling toward and, while it may sound dystopian, there are more factors to consider. What will we, as a nation and a world, have to reevaluate when faced with this outcome?
Herein lies the solution — thinking ahead.