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The death of service

Why that store clerk doesn’t care

2007.05.17 — Business | Jobs | by Barton Castor


Clerks. [source]

We find ourselves today in the last, violent throes of the service industry. Oh, it will limp along for decades more, the stragglers and the holdouts desperately clinging to old practices. But the truth is that already you are a foolish person if you venture into an establishment of commerce in this society expecting anything of the workers there but pure mechanical efficiency or apathy.

The reasons for this are rooted in the egalitarian structure of our society itself. Young people have been raised to understand that other people are no better than they are. We are all equals. One person should not have to bow and kneel to another. And so, those young people who work in the service industry don't care if you can't find what you're looking for in the electronics aisle. They don't care if you have to wait for a table at the restaurant. They don't care if you have a question. Their time is as important as yours is. They don't want to be inconvenienced any more than you do.

Historically, workers in the service industry were lower-class citizens with poor education and limited means of upward mobility. They entered the work force as servants and they stayed there for their entire working lives, rarely even rising to the level of manager of the establishment. When people know their lot in life and become resigned to it—as happens when you realize you can't change it—they become content with it and seek only to be the best they can be at what they are. And when they are servants, they are wonderful servants. They care about your experience, want to make it better, want your approval, because—wrong or not—they feel you must somehow be better than they are.

Today, workers in the service industry are mostly young people. They are just starting out in the working world, often while pursuing a higher education that will put them in a position to compete with you, the dork they have to serve today. They don't care about your time or your happiness. If you don't know what you want, it's your problem. If you can't find what you need, you need to do more research on the Web. Any help they give you is mostly entertainment for them, and when you become irritated or frustrated with them, they become irritated and frustrated with you.

Moreover, even these churlish and apathetic servants are hard to come by. They leave their jobs to go back to school or get better jobs. No one grows old in a service position today. Workers often have to be imported from Mexico and points south or from Asia, where the people are poor and have less ambition. (The ones who come to America are the ones who do have ambition.)

This has led to an astonishing move away from service itself. Self-service gas stations were early casualties. Many large stores now feature self-service checkout lanes. In any convenience store, you can get your own hot dog and soda. In many bookstores and some box stores, you can look up products on a computer. And the Internet is the biggest service killer of all. You don't even talk to a call center agent to place an order and get it delivered.

This trend will only continue. Why give your order to a fast food clerk who is only going to push a button with a burger on it? You're smart enough to push a button with a burger on it—and to figure out how to make it hold the onion too. Then Johnny Punchbutton can help man the grill and get that burger out to you fast and hot—if he's needed at all.

Self-service, automation, and even robotics will slowly kill the service industry, leaving only a manager behind to organize and coordinate the surly teens and emotionless robots who will make your food, fetch your items, and deliver your goods. And, if you're nice, he or she may even answer your questions... or at least point you toward the self-service computer help kiosk.


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