Machines are putting people out of work. You’ll notice there are no more elevator operators. You push your own button, and the thing moves. And when you place a telephone call, voice contact with a telephone operator is gone. And where’s the guy who pumps your gas, checks your oil, and cleans your windshield? Also gone! It’s a wonder anyone is working at all.
I was born when John F. Kennedy was president, so I don’t remember any of these services. But I do remember when bank machines came into use in the 1980s. Automated tellers. Of course, I was all over them. But now I prefer the human touch inside my community bank where my face is a valid form of identification. Behind wickets there are still real people who can take my check and count out my cash and who I can call by name.
I’m less interested in the human touch at the post office. But that’s just the particular humans at my post office. I do prefer to swipe my credit card at gas stations and get back on the road. Perhaps it’s also a feature of Big Store suburban life that I find it a net gain to use the automated cashier at places like Home Depot and supermarkets. They give you that choice.
Cashiers at McDonald’s restaurants who are fussing for a raise from the $7.25 minimum wage to $15 should remember this brief history and their own experience with automated services. I’ve seen people striking in front of the Golden Arches in T-shirts that read, “We’re Worth More.” Well, McDonald’s may find that while these people themselves are priceless, the services they provide are not worth anything close to $15 an hour. The cost of their labor will not have to rise much before machines become more cost effective for the company. You can even program these machines to smile and exchange pleasantries. When that happens—and it will start happening soon—it will be no more lamentable than the disappearance of elevator operators and the advent of EZPass lanes at toll plazas that cut the number of attendants who are paid enormous salaries to give you change for a five.
So what about all the folks who will no longer have those particular low skill jobs? The policy question is not how to keep those jobs, much less how to inflate their wages beyond what their minimal skills are worth. The question is how to cultivate a population that more widely has the sort of life and work skills that command higher wages. That has to begin with an honest and effective family policy.
On the other end of things, the further exclusion of cash from our economy means that retailers will be that much more able to track our spending habits and in turn influence them for their advantage, not necessarily ours.