“Self-Service” Means No Service and No Service Jobs

I wrote a few weeks back about how the rise of the hotel buffet breakfast has eliminated jobs while at the same time wasting food and causing many people to overeat.

Craig Lambert sounds similar themes in NYT:

The conventional wisdom is that America has become a “service economy,” but actually, in many sectors, “service” is disappearing. There was a time when a gas station attendant would routinely fill your tank and even check your oil and clean your windshield and rear window without charge, then settle your bill. Today, all those jobs have been transferred to the customer: we pump our own gas, squeegee our own windshield, and pay our own bill by swiping a credit card. Where customers once received service from the service station, they now provide “self-service” a synonym for “no service.” Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay.

Most economists would say this can only be good. We are more efficient and services are cheaper. But Lambert worries about the exhaustion caused by all this self-service, and shares my concern about how many people who used to have service jobs are now securely unemployed.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

31 thoughts on ““Self-Service” Means No Service and No Service Jobs”

  1. I honestly resent having to scan and bag my own groceries. Not because I think it’s beneath me (I don’t and it’s not). But because unemployment is 9%, and if my grocery total were a few bucks more but the store employed mire people, I wouldn’t mind. Also, I friggin’ hate how my purse slides off of my shoulder while I am scanning and bagging. But that is a minor problem.

    I’m also a fairly chatty person, and often find myself chatting or even conversing with the live human who is scanning and bagging my groceries, when I am not forced into the self-serve aisle. I like this. I thrive on this. Such an interaction can take the edge off of a crappy day, or be a nice finish to a good day.

    This is why a latte is worth $4.50. I can make good coffee at home. But sometimes the interaction is worth a little extra. I don’t mean to sound lonely and pathetic-I have a family, an active professional life, and friends. But the human interactions with service personnel are important.

  2. I love self-service. It’s nice not having to talk to people while you shop or pump gas, particularly when you work a customer service job where you are doing nothing but trying to appease and calm people down all day. Not to mention that the self-service gas stations and self-check-outs are much faster (the latter particularly if you don’t have more than 10-20 items).

  3. I have mixed feelings about all this. I like the anonymity of self-service, and I’m often as efficient at the task as a clerk would be – and after all I don’t save any time with the clerk doing the work; I have to be there the whole time the work gets done. My philosophy is that if someone’s job can be done more cheaply by a computer, that frees the person up to do something more useful.
    Of course, as maryQ points out, it also frees the person up to be unemployed. This is where my preference runs into the structure of our society. I think that in a rich country like ours there should be meaningful, useful work for anyone willing to do it, and they shouldn’t have to fight to hold on to a meaningless job easily replaced by an automated kiosk because this meaningless job is the only job on offer. In our society, the labor that is freed up by that kiosk is wasted, the employee is left without work of any sort. My preference would be to displace the gas station attendant and the supermarket checkout clerk – but to displace them to something meaningful, not to discard them.

  4. I’m a do-it-yourself type so I kind of like pumping my own gas. But the only time I used a self-checkout line was when I absolutely had to leave the store in a hurry. It may be weird but I go through checkout specifically because I t want those people to have jobs, and I think about that consciously. That’s in spite of the fact that they very often can’t recognize a lot of what I’m buying and have to ask me what it is and how to spell it.

    The bigger issue is that this is a dimension of a national economy– hell, local and regional too– that a lot of orthodox economists lose sight of when they talk about the goodness of comparative efficiency and the folly of “buy American” campaigns. Price isn’t the only thing in the world to think about, unless people are forced into a position where it has to be. Where the dollars go also matters. They can’t circulate and multiply inside the country if they go outside it.

    1. Altoid: I avoid the self-checkout line because our grocery store hires developmentally disabled people as baggers. They are slower than I would be, but they have a role, a job and they get to interact with other people (many of whom tip them). I know too much about the lives of this group of people to tell myself that if they lose their jobs our magical economy will just find them a new position.

  5. I understand the allure of bringing back jobs that progress has rendered obsolete, but it’s not going to happen unless there’s real demand for them.

    I guess I’m more hopeful that whenever there’s available human capital, then an economy can soak it up if we can grease its wheels and put the right rules in place. Make it easier to hire people (and to fire people who misbehave), to start and operate businesses, to generate start-up capital, and to fail with the ability to try again (forgiving debt through bankruptcy)…

    Also we *are* creating new service jobs, but a lot of them don’t happen to be direct physical person-to-person jobs that we all see/interact with on a daily basis. And I think the need for human interaction will keep a lot of service jobs around. Maybe you can afford to pay kids to make you expensive coffee because you save a bit by pumping your own gas. Maybe the pump attendant jobs just moved to Starbucks.

    1. I understand the allure of bringing back jobs that progress technology has rendered obsolete, but it’s not going to happen unless there’s real demand for them.

      I fixed it for you. Technology isn’t necessarily progress. I’m not a Luddite, but I don’t kid myself that technology is necessarily progress.

      1. Please don’t join in the perpetuation of this vile slander on the noble if pseudonymous name of Ned Ludd. The Luddites were not opposed to technology; they were opposed to the implementation of technology in a way that concentrated the gains realized thereby for the few while the many were left destitute and given no significant consideration. Their situation was highly parallel to the issues raised in this post. By insisting that technological advances serve social progress rather than destroy society you are in fact a true heir of the actual Luddites, as everyone should be.

  6. As someone who has worked his share of sh**ty service sector jobs – dishwashing, cleaning, pumping gas, and wiping a**, I have no fondness for any of them. I especially have no fondness for the low pay, lack of health insurance, or career advancement. As far as I can tell, much of it is rent-seeking and the availability of desperate people. The less desperation in the economy, the better.

  7. @Altoid

    Where the dollars go also matters. They can’t circulate and multiply inside the country if they go outside it.

    A lot of those dollars are staying in the country, though, in the form of wages and the local expenses needed to operate the factory. Not to mention that in many cases, the foreign company is partnering with local firms that actually produce the stuff for export.

    1. Walmart sells Rubbermaid that it buys from facilities Rubbermaid moved to China. When Walmart pays Rubbermaid, some of that money stays in the US to pay Rubbermaid’s importing and handling costs here and its management overhead and maybe design and some engineering costs. And dividends. The money that buys labor, and maintenance and operating needs of the facilities, and transportation of raw materials in and manufactured goods out, and trans-Pacific shipment, and (probably) raw materials, is spent outside the US. Most of that used to be spent inside the US, where employees and suppliers spent it on what they needed and wanted and the people they bought those things from kept the money moving. The way it works now, a portion of that money may circulate back here in the stream of commerce. Most will end up in the Chinese central bank’s hands as reserves, or to buy US government debt, or to swap for other currencies. Which is better for more people who live in the US?

      1. “Which is better for more people who live in the US?”

        Which is, of course, a tribal claim about the value of them vs us.

        1. Mmm, mebbe.

          But maybe I’m thinking about whose financial troubles or destitution I’m going to be held more responsible for addressing– those of my neighbors and in a more extended sense my co-participants in a particular polity and currency area, or those of people who are neither?

          I get that there’s a moral question beyond the legal/political one, I really do. But two points need to be made about this whole question. First, of course the world gains if China and India become additional producers and people there gain in production and income. And it’s better not to become rich by looting the rest of the world, as some international trade regimes have done. But is it really a net gain to the world if a factory in my town is shipped to China and the locals go on unemployment then have to somehow get by for another seven or eight years before they go on Social Security? That seems to me a good example of creating “negative externalities” for private profit and only incidentally for benefit to the new laborers and ancillaries.

          Second, we live in a world where the other major economic entities are mercantilists, while we preach free markets. We don’t *live* free markets, except pretty thoroughly when it comes to exporting capital. We’ve done that in abundance. However, afaik only the British match us in using that capital flow to export domestic jobs. Germany exports capital, but has made strenuous efforts to maintain jobs there too. Ditto, I believe, Holland and France and Scandinavia. Politically they have to do it, and it does always come down to politics. If we still called it “political economy” instead of the obfuscatory “economics” it might be easier for us to keep that in mind.

  8. I love living in Oregon, where I am not allowed to pump my own gas. I mean that. We benefit from the jobs, and we don’t have to watch idiots with cigarettes pumping gas, and we never get gas on our clothes, and when they passed the NO TOPPING OFF rule to reduce emissions, it actually gets followed, instead of ignored. It’s a win.

    It would be even better if they took me up on my suggestion to require the pump monkeys to inspect your tires for signs of low pressure and to check your tire pressure if any are observed or upon request. Under inflation of tires is a key cause of wasted gas.

  9. I love living in Oregon, where I am not allowed to pump my own gas.

    The fact that it’s actually banned makes me suspicious. If there’s an actual crowd who really wants to pay for full-service stations, then by all means let them. But actually banning them strikes me more as creating artificially high demand for full service stations (and the jobs they have), while passing the cost down to the customers who may or may not want them.

    Cigarettes can’t like gasoline too well, by the way.

    1. This drove me crazy about living in New Jersey. For one thing, the pumpers would top it off, even if you specifically asked them not to. For another, it’s not as if those guys actually checked oil or tire pressure or anything like that, so “full service” was pretty much a misnomer.

      And the third thing, is that the jobs created by insisting that someone else pump your gas are the worst sort of jobs imaginable. Instead of each motorist getting a small dose of gasoline and additive fumes, a handful of people get much bigger ones. I absolutely don’t believe that people (like myself) who drive cars should be insulated from this.

    2. It’s actually quite difficult to find a “full-serve” station in Oregon. Mostly, we have “mini-serve” gas stations, where the attendants don’t do more than pumping the gas unless they happen to be bored. And Oregon gas prices are not higher than those across the Washington, Idaho, Nevada or California borders.

  10. Keith,

    As more robots come online, and as AI continues its incredible ascent:

    Capitalism simply won’t be able to create the necessary human jobs.
    Here is what we all know: Built into Capitalism’s profit equations is the employment of maximum machinery.
    Why would a oligarch employ a needy human like Brett when a AI machine will soon (if not now) be able to do his job better?
    A machine that doesn’t need toilets, healthcare, or paid vacations?
    Unemploying gas station attendants is yesterday’s news.
    Unemploying the Brett Bellmores of the world is the near future.

    And all this is good of course for markets.
    But what about the Bretts of the world?
    They can’t all be retrained as nurses. Can they?
    Alzheimer’s exponential growth might allow for the linear growth of the nursing service.
    But where is the money going to come from the shrinking Middle Class to pay for all newly minted nurses?

    As I see it there are only two main paths ahead:

    1) The oligarchs maintain control by managing the permanent poverty created by the “creative-destruction” of human jobs via some sort of a police state.
    (And it looks like the Internet may will provide them with the necessary tools.)

    2) Capitalism and its oligarchs lose, and the world figures out a way to distribute the wealth created by machines.

  11. I avoid the self-checkout lines because they suck. Pretty much every time I use one, something goes wrong: there’s an item that won’t fit on the outgoing side, I get stuck in a loop trying to look up the SKU for an obscure item of produce, like an apple, or the scanner misidentifies something and needs to be overridden. I also try to avoid bagging my own stuff, because I’m not very good at it. Of course, the stores benefit, because one paid clerk can supervise four unpaid clerk/baggers.

    Of course, this has been going on forever, because all of our incentives are tilted toward capital investment and away from employment. When you buy a piece of equipment, you get to expense it or depreciate it; if you borrow to do so, you get to deduct the interest charges. Depending on what it is, you may even get some kind of tax credit. If you hire a person, you get to pay not only their salary (deductible, to be sure) but also social-security taxes, unemployment-insurance taxes, workers-compensation taxes plus any health insurance, pension or other fringe benefits you decide to pay. Legislators have structured things so that you pay to put people on the tax rolls, and you get paid to put people on public assistance.

    It wouldn’t be that hard (conceptually speaking) to restructure incentives so that the marginal cost of getting work done by people was lower and the marginal cost of getting work done by machines or contractors was higher. But that would take an actual commitment to increasing employment in the US.

  12. If the self service buffet causes people to overeat and causes more food to be thrown away, then it may create as many jobs in the food production and trash disposal industries (not to speak of the pollution abatement and halthcare industries) as it costs in the direct service line.

  13. Why do I want efficiency? If my slice of the pie remains the same (see wages over the last 30 years) why should I care if the pie is growing?

  14. My lot’s in with the self-checkout haters, not really for the sake of saving checkout clerk jobs but for 2 other reasons:

    1. I personally find the self-checkout experience to be awful. I do not especially enjoy being commanded to do things by an (inflexible) computer. Coupled with the general glitchiness of the process, to be the process in enervating and those few times I’ve deigned to go through it I have always emerged with slightly higher blood pressure.

    2. If I am expected to take on a portion of the work that grocers use to justify retail rather than wholesale prices, then I would like a discount reflective of that burden. Discounts are there for folks using loyalty cards; why not the same for volunteer checkers?

  15. Why do I want efficiency? If my slice of the pie remains the same (see wages over the last 30 years) why should I care if the pie is growing?

    Because wages are only half of the equation. The other half is living expenses, and if greater efficiency gains reduce those, your living standards have gone up even if your wages stayed the same.

    1. Sure, but has greater efficiency reduced living expenses? Household debt levels have been going up for about the same time wages have been stagnant.

  16. I live in New Jersey, one of the two states without self-service gas stations. It is wonderful. I can’t believe all of the other states gave it up. It is much nicer having someone else fill up your gas tank in the rain, snow, or heat. And a lot of people have jobs that wouldn’t otherwise.

  17. Lambert forgot to mention phone menu trees and being on hold forever. What a waste of all of our time! Quality of life is important, and that’s why we lose when service jobs are lost.

    1. Phone menu trees are automation (and one assumes that better integration of smartphones and voip will make them a lot less frustrating). being on hold forever is not automation, it’s understaffing.

  18. Self-serve for gas: like.

    Self-checkout at the grocery store: depends. If I had a huge load of groceries, I prefer human help. Particularly if lots of items are non-barcoded.

    I’m not so much interested in trying to prop up jobs that have been replaced with automation. If there is literally no other way to increase employment, ok I guess, but I’m thinking we might want to see how much of our present unpleasantness is “structural” before we go all googly-eyed over minimum wage jobs in grocery stores and gas stations.

  19. “But Lambert worries about the exhaustion caused by all this self-service, and shares my concern about how many people who used to have service jobs are now securely unemployed.”

    It’s hard to believe that people who talk about this are honestly weighing issues.
    Exhibit one would have to be that most of these same people also praise cooking at home, or doing one’s own gardening, or making one’s own gifts.

    To me, this looks like it, most of the time, has nothing to do with economic analysis, and everything to do with culture-kampf and tribal markers.

    1. There’s an obvious difference between doing work that one loves versus performing labor because whole categories of occupation have been eliminated.

      There’s no hypocrisy in the writer here, only a stubbornness on your part to recognize the distinction between helping your neighbor move out of his apartment for free versus performing slave labor.

  20. “There was a time when a gas station attendant would routinely fill your tank and even check your oil and clean your windshield and rear window without charge, then settle your bill.”

    This is why it is difficult to take the whole post seriously. It was never without charge. The charge was built in to the price of the gasoline. The wages didn’t get paid out of thin air. If you want to argue that it is better that we pay more for gas so that the gas pumper will have a job that 48 states can do without, just do so. But don’t pretend it comes for free.

    And for decades, at least in California, you could choose to go to the clerk service pump instead of the self service one. That only recently disappeared as an option. Do you know why it disappeared? Because almost everyone felt that they personally valued the $1-2 they saved by paying the self service price. You almost certainly have pumped your own gas when clerk service was available. Probably multiple times.

    Why did you do that?

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