By Richard Reeves
When ATMs, the cash machines, began to appear on the outside walls of banks in the 1970s, I refused to go near them. My mother was a teller at the Trust Company of New Jersey on Journal Square in Jersey City, and I knew the machines were designed to eliminate her job.
When I was at The New York Times, I went one day to what we called the "morgue," the library of old clippings. The guy behind the counter, whom I remember as "Bob," kept pointing down until I lifted myself up and peeked under the counter. There was a man under there with a clipboard and a stopwatch, an efficiency expert from one of the new consultant firms, McKinsey and Co. or Booz Allen Hamilton. I can’t remember which. They were after Bob’s job—and maybe mine in the future.
The future is now. I can’t live around the world without ATMs. The Times’ morgue has long been digitalized, available to anyone on the Internet. And the treasures of information there are supplemented by Google, LexisNexis and a thousand other information and data sites. I can’t live without them either.
But I know that they, bosses everywhere, are trying to get rid of me—and you, I suspect—if they can find the right software to monitor my keystrokes, the websites I go to regularly and read, a GPS or camera to put under my car or truck. Am I really essential? Not to them. They are diligently searching for a virtual me or you, here or in Bangladesh or cyberspace.
Columnists should avoid predictions, if possible. But here I go. One of the next big things will be "work" as an important American political issue: who gets to work and who doesn’t. What will that work be like? What obligations and rights will employees have?
We talk and debate "unemployment" now, but the issue will go far beyond, far deeper than just a fraction of people without the skills or ambition to find a job capable of supporting a family. We have already effectively more than doubled the earnings needed to support a family by bringing women into the workplace. I would argue that is a good thing for most of us, but an unintended consequence of that one step forward was the fact that it now usually takes two wage-earners to support one middle-class family or break it, partly because of work tensions and time constraints.
I find that what I see as a looming crisis is rarely mentioned in the press or even in government circles. So, I was surprised to see a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times last Sunday under this headline:
"EVERY MOVE TRACKED
"Companies count employees’ keystrokes, time bathroom breaks and monitor social media. It boosts efficiency but shreds job satisfaction."
In the piece, Times reporter Alana Semuels begins by interviewing a 52-year-old forklift operator named Phil Richards, who works in a meat warehouse. "We’re just like human machines," he says. "But with machines, they don’t care whether you feel good or if you’re having a bad day."
Richards now wears a headset, getting orders from supervisors tracking him with a device that records his time and distance on the work floor. The voice on high tells him the next job and how long he has to complete it. The mantra is "Faster, faster, more, more."
It works, and he has to work more. His employer, Unified Grocers, which supplies supermarkets, has reduced its workforce 25 percent in 10 years, while increasing sales by 36 percent.
"If everyone does a little more," says executive Rod van Bebber, "that can mean one less employee you have to hire. That’s one less health and benefit package."
He’s right, of course. That’s the American way of work. Other developed countries offer things like generous maternity leaves and four weeks of vacation time, but they are not as productive as the United States and China. In the land of the free, however, computer and telephone use are routinely monitored and clocked, and some workers will be docked in the name of productivity.
There is much more reported by Semuels. She mentions that the government has to obtain a warrant to use a GPS device to track criminals, but any boss can track you and me. Her reporting launched a flood of emails and letters to the Times, including this short one from Donna Handy:
"This brought to you by vulture capitalism: profit and wealth for very few, and a race to the bottom for the rest."
© 2013 UNIVERSAL UCLICK
Shutterstock illustration of robot hands