During a 1968 interview at California Tech, Professor James Bonner, a plant biologist, foresaw that in the future there might be so little work that obtaining it would require a medical prescription. The other day I remembered this forecast, as I was self-checking out my purchases at CVS, a practice I had noticed at a Boston Shop & Save and at Walmart.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the December jobless rate stood at 8.5%. Economists proffer various reasons, but few seem to discuss the changing labor needs of our society. For the past decades technology has been eliminating millions of occupations. It was in the 1970s or 1980s that gasoline filling stations encouraged customers to pump their own gas. About then I was exhilarated when a California or even French cash machine supplied me with money I had deposited into my New York bank account. This nor only reduced the need for bank clerks, but also money-exchangers. I bought my first computer in 1981, and it obviated the need for the typist to prepare a clean, hard copy to turn in to my publisher. Soon the clean computer copy was passé. From now on I would save my finished manuscripts onto a disk. This, in turn, required me to input all the changes made by the editor onto the copyedited manuscript. The post office has self-service counters; my lawyer’s secretary retired and instead of replacing her, he now types his own contracts. As he said, it is simpler to enter the changes on the computer himself. One used to get airline tickets from a travel agent or from the airline itself. Now there is an extra charge for not booking online or not printing one’s own boarding pass. The New York City subway had a fare booth—staffed by a clerk–at each of its many entrances. Now the booths are being dismantled and replaced by Metrocard selling machines. And what about telephone operators or receptionists? Talking to a human being was so much nicer than the endless: “Listen carefully because our menu has changed. If you want…press 1; if you want…press 2; if…”
I admit that many of these advances make my life easier, but what are we going to do with all the people that used to perform these now superfluous tasks? Jobs not only provide financial sustenance, but they also impart us with structure and a sense of worth.
My family belongs to the threatened middle class. My father died 41 years before my much younger mother did. He left her just enough money so that she never had to earn her keep. She was too proud to take a lowly job, and unfortunately had no training for a better one. The one exception to her somewhat boring existence was her annual stint at the post office, which at Christmastime employed temporary workers to help handle its extra mail. Sorting letters, I imagine, is quite dull. Still, to be with people and earn a bit of money gave my mom great satisfaction. Professor Bonner was right.