Volunteer Workers of the World, Unite

full op-ed from NYT about the evolution of Do It Yourself (Instead of the Staff)

It began in the 1970’s. Or at least that’s when I became conscious of it. People began cleaning up after themselves in fast-food restaurants. I had been living abroad and didn’t know about such things, but my children, faster to pick up on American cultural expectations, made sure I took back my tray and put my trash in the appropriate bin.

Cleverly, the restaurants made this choice not only easy but gratifying. Customers were given the sense of being good citizens or helping out the teenage minimum-wage workers who wiped off the tables.


Consumers were found to be more medically skilled than anyone had given them credit for. They could take their own blood pressure, give themselves injections and enemas, and starve themselves before surgery. Then they could find someone to drive them to the hospital at 6 a.m., wait, and then take their tottering bodies, still exhaling anesthesia, back to their beds at home where another friend could care for them. In short, they could do what nurses had once done, allowing hospitals to concentrate on investing more heavily in machines to do what doctors once did.

But the greatest labor transfer was yet to come. It began, as no one needs reminding, with the invention of the touch-tone phone and the subsequent, tauntingly named “voice mail” system, in which a voice is the thing precisely never heard. Consumers became the unpaid receptionists for business everywhere, traversing the unfamiliar and mysterious territory of multiple inappropriate choices as their time slipped away and their blood pressure mounted. Now we have robots that promise to listen closely, and to which we find ourselves speaking slowly and carefully in third-grade sentences only to hear: “I couldn’t understand you. Will you repeat the message?”

What on earth are we doing and who’s making us do it? I can’t be the only one who feels like a fool talking to a machine.

So where does this leave us economically? A good part of the increase in productivity during the past two decades can be credited to the Great Labor Transfer. We’ve taken on more than anyone thought possible. But it can’t last.


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