I had been to the carwash last week after a lapse of several months and noticed several changes. The first was that prices were lower. The regular wash was $7 ( it used to be $ 10) and the most expensive, the De Luxe was $ 10 ( it used to be $ 14). Also, there was a marked reduction in the number of employees. Previously there was one person to find out which type of wash you wanted, two or three others to apply the coatings and vacuum the inside of the car. Another man aligned the car properly onto the guide rails after you had stepped out. There was also a little counter manned by another employee where you paid for the car wash and where you could buy extras such as car fragrances. Finally ,after the car came off the rails there was a little army of three or four helpers who wiped down the car and whom you tipped.
Under the new set-up, one employee handled everything . He took your money, applied the different waxes and coatings and directed you as you drove the car onto the rails ( you remained in the car). Instead of three or four wipers , there was exactly one. And, oh yes, they no longer vacuumed the inside of the car; before you got to the “PAY” counter you did that yourself with the ‘free ‘ vacuums provided by the car wash.
All in all, there were exactly two employees ( one of whom subsisted on tips) compared to the seven ( four paid , three on tips ) that there were before.
I couldn’t help thinking about a book I had read twenty years ago, a management book written by a British author, Charles Handy. It made a deep impression upon me at the time because even though I recognised the truth of his predictions,( some of which were already coming true), they represented such a big change from the workday world as we knew it then. Handy postulated that people would no longer join a company and stay there till they retired thirty-five or forty years later. He declared that companies would have a much flatter structure with far fewer levels of management and that the permanent employees would be a small core group. The majority of the work would be outsourced to temp employees or smaller specialist businesses on a project-by-project basis. Neither would employees be loyal to a company, More like subcontractors than traditional employees, they would move from company to company every few years , or even months, and would change careers several times in the course of their life time. All this has come true in the years since and doesn’t seem radical the way it did twenty years ago.
In order to cut costs, Handy said, companies would make the customers do some of the work themselves and he gave an example which I cannot now remember. I couldn’t fathom this then but I understand it now after my experience at the carwash. I vacuumed the inside of the car myself and helped reduce the labor cost, neatly illustrating Handy’s prediction.Overall, the carwash was run much more efficiently and some of the cost savings were passed on to the customers. The change-over to this type of work structure is inexorable . Businesses will become leaner to cut down costs and ( where applicable)to compete globally but the implications for the society of the future are troubling.
Handy foresaw that the world of the future would not need as many workers. He figured that only about 33% of adults would be employed while the rest would be paid some sort of dole (something like social security ). I think Alvin Toffler had predicted something similar , years earlier. It will be a while before this happens but eventually it will become a reality if Handy is to be believed.Right now, we are seeing the effects of an unemployment rate of 10 %.What will it be like when two out of every three are not employed ?