A short time ago, I called my bank with a simple question about my account, only to be faced with an endless maze of voice recognition questions -- press 1, press 4, for Spanish press 2, etc. etc. "Can't I just get a human operator?" I fumed with exasperation. If I could, the call would have taken less than a minute.
But there aren't any operators left. Or receptionists. Or secretaries. Or typists. Or any number of dozens of jobs that used to be available for millions of people to earn a living. Many of these jobs have been outsourced. Many just don't exist anymore because technology has done away with them. And most of these jobs were ones that were filled by "ordinary people" -- average Americans who needed to make a living wage to live the decent middle-class life that defines what makes our country great. Average Americans who reminded me of an average judge named G. Harrold Carswell.
In January 1970, after being nominated for the Supreme Court, Florida judge Carswell was rejected by the U.S. Senate. His mediocre record on the bench was cited by most of the senators who voted against him, which inspired one of his few defenders, Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska, to exclaim in frustration: "There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?"
Without casting aspersions, I think most ordinary people, like the good judge, are not outstanding talents in their fields, but basically mediocre, average folk looking to pursue life, liberty and happiness.
But in today's brave new world, too often driven by Wall Street values, there is no more room for most of these people. As Thomas Friedman, the prestigious bestselling New York Times columnist recently wrote: "every boss ... has cheaper, easier, faster access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. That means the old average is over. Everyone who wants a job now must demonstrate how they can add value better than the new alternatives. ... the skill required for every decent job is rising as is the necessity of lifelong learning."
Well this mediocre ("old average") citizen is relieved to be retired from a job market that demands that every worker has to continually show they can "add value better" than others. And as for the "necessity of lifelong learning," I'd like to know who just is doing all that lifelong teaching?
The very inconvenient truth about what's happening is that no one has a clue about the fate of millions of Americans as the economy transitions into the technology age. Ironically, as the New York Times reported in a front-page article in early March, corporate profits are thriving despite -- or more likely because of -- high unemployment. Even if you consider corporations as people -- as the Supreme Court recently declared -- this isn't good news for most of the rest of us people.
Robert Moritz, chairman of Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, made the point in the Times article: "Right now," he said, "CEOs are saying, 'I don't really need to hire because of the productivity gains of the last few years.'" And the article went on to report that "four days after the company's shares soared ... to a record high last month, United Technologies confirmed that it would eliminate an additional 3,000 workers this year, on top of 4,000 let go in 2012."
Technology -- probably even that produced by the slimmer, more efficient United Technologies -- is wonderful. Since at heart I'm an optimist, I believe that eventually many, many new jobs will be created, as they were after the early days of the Industrial Revolution, to make up for the ones that are being destroyed.
Meanwhile, as we wait for "eventually" to happen, I am constantly in awe of the amazing new wonders that are being created everyday by geniuses like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. But, along with increasing numbers of out-of-work "old average" folk, I wonder how many people are going to be able to afford them.
Written By Peter Bloch for The Saturday Evening Post.