For all of the talk in Washington about jobs, it’s pretty clear that nothing will be done between now and the midterm elections. And with a lame duck president and a more-Republican Congress, the chance of something getting get done after that is even less likely.
In the meantime, we can all do a thing or two to bring down the unemployment (and underemployment) rate.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to stop being an accomplice in the technological take-over of the service industry.
I can remember a time when a trip to the grocery store included someone there to ring up your food, bag your groceries, and if you really needed help, load them in your car. Now stores are all too eager to have you ring up and pack up your bacon–before you bring it home and fry it up in a pan.
These self-checkout lanes are sometimes labeled as “Fast, easy, and fun.” But no one who’s ever used one of these things could think that. These devices turn every purchase into an order from the Soup Nazi. And do I really want everyone around me to know that I have been approved to “Move your condoms to the belt”?
One time in the run up to Thanksgiving, I actually stole a pumpkin pie because it wouldn’t scan and there was no one without shouting distance to help me. The dozen or so people behind me in line seemed to nod in approval as I stuck it in my bag and headed for the door.
We can also stop using ATMs. There seem to be bank branches everywhere, but they seem terribly underused. Maybe old people and penny rollers are on to something.
And there’s more of this to come.
Restaurants are beginning to use social media and mobile applications to streamline their services. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 3 million servers and bartenders in the United States. Imagine what would happen to the working class is they were all to be replaced with machines.
Of course, being outmoded is not just for the labor-intensive any more. Accountants and tax preparation have been replaced by Quicken and Turbo Tax, and Robert Shapiro and his associates are looking to do the same thing with Legal Zoom, a DIY place for legal services.
Opportunistic politicians (and the constituents who love them) are quick to point to immigration as a factor in unemployment—or what South Park has deemed the they’re taking-our-jobs phenomenon.
Immigration and economic development are related—but in the opposite way. Economists estimate that 4-5 jobs are created for every undocumented worker in the United States. If immigrants are not paying taxes, it’s because they are not required to, not because they don’t want to pull their weight. That’s why libertarian economists at the Cato Institute and progressive economists at the Center for American Progress agree that legalization makes good economic sense.
Whatever your day job, we are all moonlighting as cashiers and banktellers. I’m not suggested that you avoid saving money by using technology. But all things being equal, the securely employed should stop doing other people’s jobs.
It might seem like a small drop in a very large bucket. But magnified millions of times over, these little non-actions could amount to something.
It might be the best we can do.