By Ellen Goodman
I finally drew the line at a dinner invitation. My husband wanted to try a much-touted restaurant that presents you with a platter of raw foods and a hot pot. The prospect of this adventure in dining didn’t exactly thrill me. If I want to cook my own food, I answered rather testily, I’ll eat at home.
Until then, I had drifted along with the do-it-yourself economy. I bused my own lunch trays. I booked my own movie tickets. I checked myself in at hotel kiosks. I even succumbed when an upscale seafood restaurant expected me to swipe my credit card through a handheld computer as if I were in a supermarket.
But maybe it was the election-year rants about the offshoring of American jobs—ranging from those of steelworkers to those of computer programmers—that finally got me. The outsourcing of work to other countries has produced endless ire. But what about the outsourcing of work to thee and me?
For every task shipped abroad by a corporation, isn’t there another one sloughed off onto that domestic loser, the consumer? For every job that’s going to a low-wage economy, isn’t there another going into our very own no-wage economy?
I’m not just talking about do-it-yourself gas pumping, which is by now so routine that the memory of an actual person washing your windshield has receded into the mists of AARP nostalgia. Back when gas cost $2 a gallon, self-service was offered at a discount. Today, gas is more than $4, and, in most parts of the country, full service—a retronym if there ever was one—is available only at a premium.
What’s happening on land is happening in the air. We are now expected to book our own itinerary, print our boarding passes and do everything at the airport except pat ourselves down for liquids.
In this self-service economy, we also serve (ourselves) by having intimate and endless conversations with voice-recognition machines simply to refill a prescription drug or check our bank balance. We are expected to interact with “labor-saving technology” without realizing that it’s labor-transferring technology. The job has not been “saved”; it’s been taken out of the paid sector, where employees have a nasty habit of expecting salaries, and put into the unpaid sector, where suckers ‘r’ us.
I am tempted to say that customer service has gone the way of the house call, but that reminds me that even medicine has been outsourced to patients who buy do-it-yourself kits to test and track everything from HIV to blood pressure. The Internet ad for a do-it-yourself eye surgery kit may be, I pray, a hoax. But in an era when every operation short of brain surgery is done on an outpatient basis, nursing care has already been outsourced to family members whose entire medical training consists of TiVo-ing “Grey’s Anatomy.”
The axis of this evil isn’t really globalization, it’s privatization. Consider all the major jobs that have now become part of our personal portfolio. We’ve become our own computer geeks as help lines become self-help lines. We’ve become our own pension planners and financial analysts managing our 401(k)s. We are even expected to be health care analysts, determining which star in the galaxy of drug prescription plans covers the ever-changing cast of pills in our medicine cabinet.
All of this is framed in the language of free choice. As opposed to, say, free time.
An MIT economist assures me cheerily that many Americans are willing to accept less service for lower cost. In a society built on the value of self-reliance, I am told, we may even feel virtuous when we put together our own bookcase or install our own hard drive.
But I have yet to find an economist who has figured out the human cost of “lower cost” or tallied up the transfer of labor from companies to customers. I’ve yet to find a consumer who has added, subtracted or multiplied the amount of time we are now spending on the second shift of life management.
Remember back when women were asking “Can We Have It All?” The answer turned out to be that we could have it all only if we could do it all ... and all by ourselves. Now men and women have won equal opportunity in the do-it-all-by-yourself world. We have officially become our own nonprofit centers.
Welcome to the self-service economy where we are never without work to be done. Let’s celebrate by dining out together. Bring your carrot peeler.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group