What do the elevator attendants do in the information age?

I had all kinds of ideas for a really insightful post about building codes, redevelopment and the relative value of buildings empty or full brewing in my head yesterday inspired by the post on Dayton Most Metro: “Restrooms, Elevators and Sprinklers- Oh My!”

Then life took me on a different path.

My tenant of 6 years moved out over the weekend with help from her family. She lost her job as a cytologist back in September. A cytologist, for those of you not in the high-tech medical field- prepared and examined pap smears under a microscope to detect cancer. Yes, it’s another field that computers will soon make obsolete, but for now, it’s still a critical skill. She’d been doing it for at least 18 years. It’s a quota job- examine X per day, with a 95%+ correct rate and all is good.

Except she is mentally ill, and once she lost her job due to a bout with her illness, she was unable to get back up and back to work. In fact, she was unable to do much. Answering the door, the phone, using an answering machine- all critical job seeking skills, were beyond her ability. Note, she also had a bachelor’s degree in psychology. It’s not like we’re dealing with someone with limited intelligence.

A case worker could have done a lot to stop her from going from a contributing member of society to a burden, however, our health-care system is more like buying protection from serious injury by the mob (the insurers) than actually having access to basic, pro-active, preventive medicine. But we do have insurance company CEOs making $144 million in a year.

This piece won’t make sense to many people younger than me. They don’t know what an elevator attendant is. The only place I know where one still exists is in Mendelsons Liquidation Outlet, where rather than putting in modern elevators, Mr. Mendelson opted to pay someone minimum wage to run his old elevator with a manual lever for stopping on each floor- and opening and closing the old doors. Over time, the elevators would have been cheaper to replace- but that job will never exist again.

We’ve done as much as we can to eliminate work suited for the less fortunate, or jobs that suck. We don’t bend over and pick cotton anymore. We still need people to pick fruit- but, few Americans do it- even in America.

When it comes to finding jobs that pay for those who are mentally, physically or challenged by circumstance, there are few jobs left. Sure, you can become a janitor/cleaning person, but this doesn’t have aspirational appeal in our collective “American Dream.”

In what may seem like a total disconnect, my thinking heads to ways to reach that dream. In America we lionize the lucky. We still believe that through hard work, anything is possible, when in fact, hard work alone is not enough anymore for many, because we’ve found it easier to off-shore it.

It’s one of the reasons selling drugs is one of the last bastions of hope for the downtrodden. It’s why there is an illicit drug market- how better to escape reality than taking a trip without having to go anywhere for less than $20 for some crack or smack.

No one in “economic development” likes to admit it, but the reason so many jobs have left this country is because survival in China and India and other, less fortunate places than America is linked to doing jobs that allow people to reach their aspirational existence, even if their dream may only be to eat and have shelter. We’ve stopped caring about those people in this country, unless it directly affects someone we are related to, or you are one of those who still has a soul.

As long as we can get it cheaper at WalMart, all is good.

It’s the people with a soul who still think about it. Prompted by a discussion with his pastor, one of those living the American Dream was having an internal debate about the gap between the rich and poor. He was trying to justify his lavish life through the knowledge that he was creating jobs. I follow him on twitter @larryvc and his tweet was:

Blog post: On The Disparity Between Rich and Poor. Hope I don’t regret this one! » link to On The Disparity Between Rich and Poor « Thinking About Thinking

“I hope I don’t regret this one.”

Do you think drug dealers have similar thoughts? Self-examination by the Wall Street crowd is healthy, however, second-guessing life on the street is deadly. We’ve created a system of extremes, and now, we’ll suffer the consequences.

No matter how successful a VC or Wall Street maven is, the disconnect from the rest of society will end up affecting them. Because jobs aren’t the answer to everything, but they sure do make a difference for everyone.

We can’t all be knowledge workers in the “creative class.” And as smart as we think we are, we still need to give people something productive to do, even if it is inefficient. We need a way that everyone can participate, even if they are elevator attendants. I hear cries of socialism, but, when you balance in the costs to society, which is more inefficient, paying for prisons or life-saving measures on a gang shooting, or paying people to operate a metaphorical elevator?

Think about it next time you push a button to go up or down, you’ve contributed to our collective problem.

Have a happy Memorial Day. Thank our veterans for giving us the opportunity to create jobs in Germany, Japan, Italy, Korea, Vietnam and now in Afghanistan and Iraq. From a veteran who obviously has issues with what we’ve done in our country for our own people.

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13 Responses

  1. David Lauri May 25, 2009 / 9:55 am
    Wow, you’ve just made a case against legalizing marijuana and other drugs, for legalization would move drug sales from the downtrodden to corporate America.

    Seriously though, you raise some important issues.

    Our healthcare system is indeed a hostage of corporate America, for whom reactive treatment is more profitable than is preventative treatment, although (because?) preventative treatment costs less.

    And that whole prevention versus reaction thing applies to what you’re talking about with your former tenant and with the less fortunate.  Is it better for society to spend some money on prevention by making sure people don’t fall through the cracks or to spend even more money on reaction — for example on prisons or on welfare and Medicaid for the unemployed/unemployable/disabled?

  2. pizzabill May 25, 2009 / 11:03 pm
    David E:

    Many employers would like to offer entry-level jobs such as the elevator operator of which you speak.  Unfortunately, and ironically, the same people who lament about the loss of these type of jobs are the same people who push for “living wage” laws and mandatory employer provided health insurance (as well as automatic annual increases to the minimum wage, which we now have in Ohio).  You needn’t be an economist to figure out the unintended consequence of those well-meaning rules:  as labor costs increase the incentive becomes greater to automate– thus fewer jobs and the permanent loss of elevator operators.  The fact is, as laws mandate, employers lose the freedom to keep people on such as an elevator attendant.  And if you think this is hyperbole, read on…

    What if interns in any field had to be paid even minimum wage and were subject to wage and hour law requirements?  How many people would lose the chance to gain valuable job experience– experience that they willingly want to receive since they realize that their sacrifice of pay equates to a valuable investment in their future?  Entry-level jobs are the same investment opportunity for many people, such as teenagers with low or no job experience, except they actually get paid to learn and develop basic job skills– sometimes something as basic as simply reading a work schedule and showing up on time.

    Recent employment laws and proposed laws like the “living wage” seem well intended, but in reality absolutely discourage “paying people to operate a metaphorical elevator”, even if an employer wants to.

  3. Shelia O May 26, 2009 / 12:16 pm
    I’m wrapping up my MBA at Wright State and in a global econ class, the prof made the comment that as the US becomes a knowledge based society, the more labor instensive jobs would go to the third world countries who have a huge labor pool. 

    The thing that struck me about that statement was that not all people in society will be at the same point in being able to provide that knowledge base, like David E points out; what about those who are not capable because of limitations placed upon them – whether they are physical/mental limitations or monetary limitations (like the next post about college funding in Ohio)?  Not all jobs should be eliminated because they could be – there will always be someone who needs that job.

    On the other hand I can understand the weights that are placed on the shoulders of our local business owners merely struggling to stay afloat in such hard times.

    There are no easy answers about any of this, but I like that people in my city are thinking about it.  Thanks.

  4. Greg Hunter May 26, 2009 / 12:41 pm
    Yes,

    There is a reason that we need a great deal of different jobs as we are all different.  In Romania, there were dogs living everywhere, but I did not step in any dog crap for two reasons.  I watched where I was going and they had street sweepers.  These jobs are necessary for people to be able to survive while providing a necessary service.  What is wrong with a society that sets a certain level of expectation along with a safety net.

    This has been my contention with my advocacy with horse racing as that gambling dollars is spread out over a great socioeconomic groups when compared to other forms of gambling.

  5. David Esrati May 26, 2009 / 6:14 pm

    Welcome to the conversation Sheila O!
    This is where I get in trouble- The City pays some trash collectors over $55K yr.
    I wonder if the Downtown Dayton Partnership “Ambassadors” must live in the city- or get benefits?
    How can we have a one size fits all minimum wage, yet still not be a living wage? Are there different levels of living? Of course.
    Capitalism as we practice it, seems grossly disfigured. You can be paid millions for running a company into a ground- but then be forced to sleep on it, because of the genius CEOs of banks and auto companies.
    Full employment may not be possible, but I’d rather pay everyone to do something- than to pay some people to do nothing. I believe in a safety net- but, not a swaddling blanket.
    If we turned everyone on welfare into true “minimum wage workers” cleaning streets, digging ditches etc. I think we’d have less people on welfare.
    There has to be some kind of job for everyone to contribute to society. Even inmates used to make license plates and their own work clothes.
    Offshoring the dirty work won’t solve any problems long term.

  6. Jeff May 27, 2009 / 4:20 pm
    This is where I get in trouble- The City pays some trash collectors over $55K yr

    A living wage …or middle class wage….for a familiy of four is considered around $40K  per year.  In 2000 the median household income was around $60K.

    Heres a blog post on how this maps out in Montgomery County:

    http://daytonology.blogspot.com/2008/05/middle-class-wage-in-montgomery-county.html

    <a href=”http://daytonology.blogspot.com/2008/05/middle-class-wage-in-montgomery-county.html”>living wage in Montgomery County</a>

  7. Drexel Dave Sparks May 28, 2009 / 12:11 pm
    Nothing wrong with trashmen earning 55k a year. They earn it, and are more important in my life, directly, than about anyone else.
  8. Jeff May 28, 2009 / 3:43 pm
    I should clarify..$60K was the median household income for a census tract in Montgomery County, not nationwide, in 2000.

    So the trashmen are making just a tad below this median..

    But it’ll be interesting to how this shakes out with the 2010 census, after we lost all those manufacturing jobs.

  9. jstults January 12, 2010 / 2:55 pm
    Jeff:

    …how this shakes out…after we lost all those manufacturing jobs

    It isn’t just losses in manufacturing that won’t be coming back because of increased automation / efficiency / off-shoring:

    In other areas of the labor market, the recession accelerated job losses that were probably coming anyway. In November, there were 36% fewer people working in record shops than two years earlier, according to the Labor Department. There were 23% fewer people working at directory and mailing list publishers, and 46% fewer at photofinishing establishments. Those are jobs that, with the advent of mp3 recordings, Google and digital photography, were likely disappearing anyway.
    But as the recession hurt already ailing businesses, workers were forced into a sudden adjustment rather than the gradual one they would have otherwise faced. The recession also provided companies with an opportunity to cut jobs no longer as critical as they once were. That may be particularly true of the secretaries and mailroom clerks that advances in information technology have made less necessary. The ranks of people doing office and administrative work have fallen 10.1% since the recession began.
    “Those are the production jobs of the information age, and they’re being to a substantial extent automated,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor.
    Even in a Recovery, Some Jobs Won’t Return

    So what are the ‘production’ workers in the info age?  And what sort of job security can they expect?  It seems like the knowledge workers at the bottom of the pyramid (or if you look at it differently, those on the front-line) are even more susceptible to obsoleting than manufacturing workers.
     
    One office I used to work in used to have a secretary that did administrative paperwork and typed reports and basically wrangled the low-level paper-pushing (she was a valued member of the team because she provided a useful service), now all the professionals in that office type their own reports and have no need for someone who knows all the formats for memos and forms because they are all in tidy little Word or pdf templates.  The knowledge and skills that used to make that secretary quite valuable have been successfully commoditized.

  10. jstults November 8, 2010 / 7:58 am
    For American workers the most worrying thing about all this is the flight of brain-intensive jobs to India. Americans reconciled themselves to the loss of manufacturing jobs with the thought that they would keep the smart jobs. But they reckoned without two things: the power of the internet and the hunger of emerging-market companies.
    The other elephant

  11. Greg Hunter November 9, 2010 / 9:10 am
    Yes America has such foresight….I am grateful that the Education system was destroyed in America as I have nothing to fear from the best and the brightest this country is producing.
  12. joe_mamma November 9, 2010 / 1:26 pm
    Greg’s right.  “America” doesn’t have foresight.  It is individuals living their everyday lives and having the freedom to make millions of mostly seemingly mundane individual decisions everyday that have foresight.  It’s called emergent or spontaneous order.

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