Amazon bought Whole Foods. Robots are stocking the warehouse shelves. My cable company representative is a staccato automation. This is not Blade Runner. This is the world.
I bussed tables in a meat-and-three at age 15. That was my first job. Despite the fact that I wasn’t allowed near any food that hadn’t been chewed or manhandled, I still had to dress the part. I was issued black pinstriped pants with an elasticized waist – gigantic joggers before joggers became trendy. Tucked into these kitchen pants was the oversized button-down oxford shirt, the Felicity Porter look that only worked for Felicity Porter. Over it all, I draped and tied and triple-tied my apron, so stiff from starch and the crusted food of meals past that it could stand up on its own in my bedroom, a phantom waitress on shag peach carpet.
The café was in a strip mall next to Piggly Wiggly. When we ran out of bread for the chicken salad, I’d be sent on a Wiggly-run. I’d shuffle over in my scuffed up Danskos, like a nurse on the night shift. Three loaves of wheat, stat. I’d split my tips with the other bussers. Dollars were big money. We mostly operated in change.
After several months and only one disaster where I broke a full tray of dinner plates after slipping on the non-slip mat (the irony is not lost in me), I was promoted. They moved me behind the counter, to the pastry department. This is where I really shined. I could sell a buckeye or slice of carrot cake to the most stringent of old ladies. They’d be groaning over the pinto beans already gassing them up and I’d swoop in with “a little something for the road” and nab a dollar for my trouble. Everybody’s a sucker for food on a doily.
Two years I worked this job until I left for college, and then I found a part-time gig there as well. Nothing to stem the tide of tuition, but enough shifts at a pottery painting shop (back when people still did that) to earn some food and gas money and furnish my pocket-sized dorm with a full set of watercolor wineglasses that looked like they came from a drunken bachelorette party. I am not an artist.
I knew what it was to balance school and work and budget my groceries and my car-cruising. In high school, I was lucky to have parents who provided the basic necessities, but if I wanted Ben & Jerry over Blue Bunny, I’d have to work it out on my own. I also learned how to deal with people. You know, people – the other 320 million Americans who might wander up to my counter in good moods and bad, in sickness and in health, pre- or post-pinto bean. Work taught me how to manage people just as much as time and money. Which is why, when I read in Wired Magazine that robots might just be the future of our work force (sooner and more overtly than we thought) I had to wonder. What would it look like if human work was obsolete – if the world was left to its leisure?
Would my kids know how to lay their time at the feet of a manager setting schedules or a patron needing help? Would they learn how to smile in the face of an angry customer, let it run off them like oil on water, because their job was to stem the tide and not fall under it? Would they learn the different levels of communication, like when to engage in niceties over empathy and vice versa? And what would they do with their time? If this existential crisis is quickly approaching, what will the definition of work and their place in the world be? How can I, as their parent, help them define it?
My answer? They’re going to work. For as long as work exists, my kids are going to get jobs at the library, at the café, at Target, at the grocery store – wherever they are needed. They will fill out the paper work, wear the uniform, get a check, and learn how taxes work. Because the world will always need people who know the value of self-sacrifice and manual labor. We all need to know what it is to watch the minutes tick by on a slow shift.
If, as CNN reports, “38 percent of jobs in the U.S. are at high risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence over the next 15 years,” then it is even more important for my children to know the value of paying their way, of counting change, of helping others, of being human.