Back to Normal, Hold the Fries
In the 1990s, there were McJobs. In the 2020s, we're McShoving them.
Would it be that bad if half the fast food places in the U.S. closed down? What if stores were … just open less?
I've been asking myself that a lot recently, especially after reading any of the recent round-ups from Buzzfeed, listmaker of the proletariat:
"22 People Who Reached Their Breaking Point And Quit Their Job" (April 17, 2021)
"People Are Sharing Their "F— This Job, I Quit" Moments, And Wowzers These Are A Lot" (September 25, 2021)
Bad managers and horrible customers are not confined to the hospitality and retail industries, but many other industries with terrible customers also pay much, much better. It's no wonder retail is bleeding employees, along with the hospitality industry.
Any time I read these round-ups, I'm reminded of Eric Ripert's memoir, 32 Yolks: From My Mother's Table to Working the Line. Prior to cooking, Ripert went to school and trained to become a waiter. As he explained it, the training took more than a year and encompassed a phenomenal array of skills, all of which contributed to the overall idea that when a guest dines at a restaurant, they are paying for access to an experience created by several types of professionals working together.
Service work in America falls prey to the same cultural biases that pervade any labor explicitly tied to meeting the needs of another human being. The service worker is expected to be skilled, competent, uncomplaining, emotionally responsive to the recipient of their labors, available on someone else's whim -- and willing to accept little compensation in return for attentive, industry-specific, and demanding work.
If we reframed service work as a skilled profession -- one requiring an abundance of those "soft skills" business publications are always saying are in short supply in addition to industry-specific skills -- that would address some of the discontent fueling the Great Resignation. It would also provide exciting new fields of employment as we shift boring and easily routinized work to automation. You can't outsource the skilled work of nurturing or repairing human relationships to an algorithm -- yet.
Back in the 2000s, the word "masstige" gained traction in business and lifestyle journalism. The portmanteau captured an indicator of American aspirational spending -- the idea that Americans who were middle-class at best could access goods and services that shared the refined aesthetics and luxury touches that the upper classes took for granted.
Target was king of this space thanks to its collaborations with high-end designers: by presenting a limited number of co-branded items for a limited time, it could position the licensing deals as curated collections, i.e. something made luxurious by its scarcity. And it picked names that were recognizable enough to people to present the dream of accessible high-end goods. (For more on this, read either Dana Thomas's Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster or Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style.)
Flash forward to 2020: a lot of white Americans unspooled when they weren't allowed to get their hair done or take advantage of Applebee's happy-hour pricing. The writer and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom posited that this is because in the U.S., white people so rarely confront the realities of their socioeconomic class:
White consumption responds to a deep psychological and social function. The white consumer is fighting for their very lives, as they experience them. If they are not consuming, then they may not exist as they imagine they exist: good, hard-working Americans that are one right decision removed from their rightful place of benevolent superiority.
The whole piece is worth reading, and McMillan Cottom's piece points to a much larger issue: All this spending to perform the identity of middle-class status only works so long as businesses keep costs down via an abundance of poorly treated cheap labor.
The kicker is these businesses that were going to be unsustainable anyway. Just as America is over-malled, it's over-restauranted. Oversaturation in a market ultimately leads to a shakeout. The difference is now, workers are leaving before they can be fired by corporate when institutional investors start lobbying for operational cost cuts.
On a microlevel, the person who's inconvenienced because it takes ten minutes to get their crispy chicken sandwich at the drive-through is probably pretty salty that their consumer experience has taken a hit.
On a community level, the people in charge of tax revenues are casting worried eyes at a shrinking sales tax base. Corporate types are now wondering how they'll have to rejigger spending on people and places, and how that will square against adjusted revenues. The Great Resignation is reminding people that a free market should benefit both the worker and the employer.
The last 20 months have afforded everyone in the U.S. an opportunity to ask what was really working about their pre-pandemic lives and whether they really wanted to "return to normal."
If "getting back to normal" meant accepting that we require a large number of our fellow citizens to suffer lousy pay and even lousier working conditions with no hope of anything better, is it that what we really want to get back to? The U.S. has shifted to a services economy. It's time to reframe how we think of service work.