Encroachment of self-serve U.S. economy fogs statistics

March 21, 2010|By Jay Hancock

I'm getting tired of working for the man. Not The Baltimore Sun. I mean my job with Capital One, the credit-card company.

And all the work I do for Verizon and M&T Bank. And Southwest Airlines.

Verizon signed me up as a broadband network technician. When the router or modem goes out on my Internet service (rare, it's true), the guy who fixes it is me. I'm a data-entry clerk for Capital One. They make me key in my card number and other stuff when I call so they don't have to. I check myself in for Southwest flights and serve as my own teller at M&T's money dispenser.

What's next, running a cash register? Oh, yeah - I do that for Home Depot.

Perhaps the Labor Department's calculation that only 5 percent of American workers are multiple jobholders is a little off.

True, I'm not being paid for this kind of multi-moonlighting, and neither is anybody else. But we're working for these companies just as surely as the employees and contractors in their books.

It's another reason to suspect the official economic statistics peddled by Washington. American workers boosted their hourly production per person by a phenomenal annual rate of 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter, if you believe this month's Labor Department figures.

But if the bean counters measured all the off-the-clock work that companies are foisting on their customers, the national performance might be a lot less impressive.

"Companies are asking, 'How do we get consumers to do more work for us - for free?' " says Kent Grayson, an associate professor of marketing at Northwestern University. "And 'How do we attract consumers that actually enjoy doing that extra work?' But on the other side, they're also asking, 'How do we save on customer-service costs?' One way to do that of course is to ask consumers to do more work."

The phenomenon of "prosumers" - consumers morphing into cheap labor for companies they patronize - has been around for decades. Self-dialing a long-distance phone call ceased to be a novelty long ago. Diners have been waiting on themselves at places such as McDonald's and cafeterias at least since the 1950s. Self-serve gas took off in the 1970s.

But the communications revolution seems to have pushed prosumption to a new height. It's not just data entry, typesetting and bar-code scanning that have been taken over by unpaid or poorly paid consumers.

At National Instruments, based in Austin, Texas, nearly half the company's research and development is done by customers collaborating in online communities, says Grayson, who has written about the prosumer movement.

Moms in Procter & Gamble's Vocalpoint Web community hawk the company's products in return for coupons. At Threadless.com, customers design T-shirts, Grayson says.

Accounting for unpaid work has always been a problem. The professional Merry Maids who vacuum your living room are officially part of the gross domestic product. But homeowners who do the vacuuming aren't, even though the labor and results in each case are identical.

The libel still exists that full-time homemakers and child-raisers - still primarily, but by no means exclusively, women - aren't doing "real" work.

Futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, credited with coining the term prosumer, guessed that unpaid work is an enormous, "hidden half" of the economy.

Grayson rejects the idea that computers, the Web and cell phones have drastically boosted overall prosumption. Even as companies dished off some tasks to unpaid consumers, he says, they took other tasks over.

"Twenty-five or 30 years ago, there wasn't the option to get premade Toll House cookies," he says. "Or dough. We had to make our own dough. But now there are companies that do it for us. So who knows what the actual trade-off is? But I wouldn't be surprised if it was a wash."

Maybe, but it feels as if the leisure once granted by takeout meals and electric washing machines is being snatched away by the information economy. My insurance company doesn't just want me to figure out what coverage I need without the help of an agent; it wants me to print my own policies.

Meanwhile, nearly 10 percent of American workers are unemployed, many of whom used to check groceries, operate elevators, staff bank tills and do other jobs taken over by consumers.

Because unpaid work isn't counted in GDP, the Tofflers say that official statistics substantially underestimate economic output.

Of course, but the government accounts probably underestimate our work even more. A brutally honest Labor Department would show us all as multiple jobholders, putting in tons more hours for peanuts in return.

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