Saturday, September 22, 2012

What happens when there are no more consumers?

 Every human is both a worker and a consumer. We are not like tree or plants that can produce all we need from the air, soil, water and sun light. In a modern post industrial society operating in a global economy we are all dependent upon one another both as worker and consumer. But as business or labor we have been at each other's throat for more than a century. The other day, as I was cleaning my old Playboy Magazines I came across an article entitled, No Help Wanted, by Charlles A. Cerami, in which he predicted
"One day unemployment figures will trigger a realization that the industrialized world has for decades been putting itself out of business. An ancient fear has come true: People are being replaced by machines. They're being replaced at the worst possible time time , when other trends are already pushing upper- and middle-incomers down a slope." Playboy | May 1, 1993 |
Back then we were entering era of prosperity and just coming out of the impact of the end of the Cold War. Yet Cerami, today, seems prescient.

Today with unemployment officially around 8 - 9% and millions of workers are no longer counted because they dropped out of the workforce, taken part-time work, or returned to be students to gain skills that they hope will get them a job, experts estimate the real figure for those who might be available for work at around 16 - 19 % of the working age population. Cerami's warning seems timely. Every unemployed and underemployed worker is also an under-consuming consumer. These leads to inefficient and under-performing consumption regardless of how productive the capital and/or labor assets of business are.

Cerami's prediction reads like an Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times or Wall Street Journal. However his article appeared in the May, 1993 issue of Playboy.

The question is: As consumer anthropologists what are we doing to address this issue? What are we doing to present the holistic perspective of consumer/worker relations to our clients whether corporations, workers, policy makers or the public?

Some people explain this as being a "Lubbite" ( and that is goes back much further to Hegel and Marx and the reaction to industrialization. The point I am making here is that once the status/role of human in society is divided, split, separated into two distinct status/roles, one of worker and the other of consumer then the status/role of human is "dehumanized." Individuals become valued for their status as a worker or as a consumer. For a producer (entrepreneur, investor, owner producer) the value of a human worker is weighed against the value of a technological substitute. Meanwhile, the consumer is still, in the end, a human being.

Innovation over the past two centuries have lead to tremendous "human progress" I will readily admit. However, the rate of innovation has now exceeded the reasonable expectations of a human life time which itself has been extended.

We have, as a species, the ability to extend our productivity and consumption by extending these advances to the third world -- and are doing it with our medical and scientific technology-- at a tremendous ecological cost. As the standard of living and expectations of improved living standards are extended to the third world -- we might expect that we are producing more consumers as well. But in fact, we are pushing the worker and consumer status/roles further apart. We are not only shifting the jobs but also the consumption offshore at a rate that is greater than the normal generational turnover we might expect to mitigate the impact of change on the social and cultural systems. The human being's ability to learn and unlearn skill sets that the emergent global economy calls for in today's world economy is not keeping up with technological clock.

Human labor is becoming obsolete faster, and faster. The years required for training are increasing while the years of productive use of that training are decreasing. The years of life as a consumer are being extended while the years of income generation as a worker are rapidly decreasing.

An annual growth rate of 7% produces a doubling of investment (see the rule 72 ( over ten years, so logically on the other side of the equation, it suggests that an amortization of a workers intellectual investment goes to zero in the same time period.

Have you noticed that experience no longer counts when applying for a job as it did once in many jobs? It is rationale for a business to invest in a machine that can be write off on its taxes in ten years, rather than hire a person with years the work experience but who training over the same ten years can not be.

The status/role of human is diminished when one's status as a worker/consumer is bifurcated and the role of the former is discarded as so much "pink slim" i.e. a filler. And one's only true value is as a "loyal" customer with a credit card that has not maxed out yet.

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