Store associates and fast-food workers are now pulling down $14-plus per hour. During most of my previous career as a private-school teacher, my salary provided around $11/hour based on a 40-hour week, so yeah, more like $7.50/hour considering at-home prep and grading. Two plusses, though: 1) After I earned my M.S. in Science Education, the loot skyrocketed to a skosh below $10/hour, time-adjusted, and 2) I had most of the summer free to do whatever I wanted, such as digging sprinkler-line trenches, throwing down shingles on a scorching roof, or negotiating debt paydowns. Good times!
I don’t really get the economics of it, the inflation, the high pay and plentiful jobs, and how constant understaffing goes with all that. But I perceive that service has come down a few notches since the long-gone days when we relied quite confidently on bank tellers, grocery checkout personnel, and department floor associates. Heck, even recherché shoe salespersons in the past helped me to physically try on different styles and sizes—at K-mart.
So, I suppose it’s comforting that we’ve now become well-versed in self-service—indoctrinated in the value of ultimate independence. Not too long ago, it took “a village” to get something done, now, we go solo with the help of microprocessor hardware and software. Machines and the code that runs them are now our essential associates. It started way back with self-pay fuel pumps, vending machines (today upgraded with card readers), and ATMs. I remember being completely blown away at a coffee-dispensing machine with a coin slot and big plastic selection buttons, just like any soda machine. I punched in two quarters and watched with delight as the something-like-Styrofoam cup dropped, followed by a few squirts of half-and-half, then a whirring motor spitting out hot coffee, stopping just in time. I was nine, and I’ve been a coffee drinker ever since.
Fast-forward to the present, and Carvana has taken it to the next level with an actual car vending machine, i.e., a controllable parking garage/elevator. A few dozen of these are now in operation, high-tech yet offering the nostalgia of dropping a custom coin into a slot. It’s a bit of a gimmick—an expensive one—that few of us require, but consider grocery self-checks, Amazon orders, and getting obscure facts from the Internet just by asking. These are now commonplace and avoid direct interaction with potentially incompetent or emotional persons (sure, you may confer with a delivery driver somewhat, but how long will they really be needed?).
We’re still on the upswing on all this—there is a promising future of very little human interaction in public places. I’m not Nostradamus, but I can extrapolate, and hope. In the dental waiting room, I expect to at least take my own bitewing x-ray before getting invited to the back for my cleaning. And if I suspected a stress-fracture in my foot, I would use the opportunity to confirm that or rule it out. Instead of having my elevated, lab-coated pharmacist feign alchemy, measuring and mixing up formulations, I could dial this up myself at a machine out front. Can you envision skipping away with your 500-count packet of customized ibuprofen-sildenafil-hydrochlorothiazide-clonazepam capsules? But I do suppose you’d have to deal with some automated upselling: Based on your recent order of [beat] benazepril, may I interest you in a medium-rare ribeye?
For better or worse, though, the human element won’t completely disappear. I say this with confidence because there are yet establishments that insist on having a bathroom attendant deal out paper towels, or fast-food franchises that won’t give you free reign over a ketchup dispenser. I think the little packets hold about ½ fluid ounce, so I always feel a bit indulgent when asking over the counter for about ten—just enough to enrich my value fries.
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