"We have become a society that by compartmentalizing work and by giving a sense of specialization to jobs which should be generalized, have created an atmosphere of complacency." Stuart Alcorn writes about the corrosive effects of our centralized and specialized economic and social system.

The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.
Charles de Montesquieu

I have a neighbour two doors down who is a retired gentleman, probably in his early 70’s.  I often stop by his house and have coffee with him and his wife when I am out for an evening stroll or he will pop in on a Saturday when we are both out working in our yards.  We both have occasion to be away from home for days at a time; he to visit his offspring seventy kilometres away and I for business purposes. We will take turns cutting grass for each other in the summer or blowing snow out of driveways in the winter. Recently, the neighbour in between us built a gorgeous six foot cedar plank privacy fence. I want to burn it down; it’s caused a major block in our visits. But the fence isn’t really what’s important here; we both figured out that we could go around the front of the properties.

What is important is that people I work with seem to be surprised by the friendship that we have developed. Let’s call this affable gentleman Steve, because that’s his name. Steve and I know each other’s political views, opinions on the justice system, and opinions on the national economy.  We, and our spouses, know some details of each other’s family histories, medical dramas and so on.  I have not, in essence, developed any other friendships with others in the neighbourhood other than an occasional greeting usually accompanied by the requisite curt nod of the head. Nor do I see other neighbours visiting like this although it is a quiet and definitely suburban block. I first assumed that my professional colleagues and peers thought our friendship strange because there is quite a disparity in ages. Now, I am beginning to realize, people are often surprised when neighbours make friends! I’m surprised by the ones who don’t. Isn’t being friendly the way it’s supposed to be?

Perhaps I am unintentionally exaggerating and people reading this will respond with “heck no, I’m buddies with Dave down the block” or “I attend all of Andie’s Tupperware parties...” Whatever the case may be, I lived a good portion of my life in environments that were pretty far removed from the usual middle class Canadian norm. Consequently, I think, I may be a bit anachronistic. That is, I am accustomed to what small neighbourhoods were like in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. People cared about each other.  I think that the general withdrawal and compartmentalization that we have experienced in our neighbourhoods is symptomatic of something much more widespread in our society.

As usual, my evidence is anecdotal. In defence of that, I’ve been around long enough to see some things. When I was a child, I lived in a house that was right behind a grocery store. I knew the owner, the manager and several of the cashiers.  My parents spoke to most of those individuals on a first name basis; I referred to them as Mr. or Mrs. Surname, because that’s how children were taught to address their elders in the ‘60’s. I can state categorically that I have never met the late Sam Walton nor any of his progeny.  I know for a fact, however, that the owner of the store I grew up next to never put self-serve cash registers in his store. The fact is that he was long gone from the retail world before that technology was available to him, but I am certain that he would not have.  Those machines take away jobs. So do ATMs. So does pumping one’s own gas (I don’t). All of these cost-cutting accessions to efficiency also create one more block between purchaser and purveyor. We have already slipped quietly past the cusp of the first decade of the 21st century and all around me and throughout our society I see the pervasive growth of giant retail chains and the phenomenal spread of ‘big box’ stores. The small neighbourhood operation is barely surviving. 

This trend goes beyond the usual retail operations that might first spring to mind. Again, when I was a child, my father would purchase lumber for any home projects that he was working on from a small sawmill operation just a few miles outside of town. I got to ride along in the truck. The owner always seemed to me to be grumpy and scruffy, perhaps one of the side results of being a small entrepreneur in the lumber industry and I was judging him too harshly. Nevertheless, I am fairly certain that while I romped about in the ubiquitous piles of shavings and sawdust with my dog, my father negotiated his final purchase price over a small dram of Scotch with the owner. This gentleman also employed several local men in the harvesting and milling of lumber who would not have had regular work otherwise. I left my hometown in my teens and when I returned a few years later, the owner of that operation had either retired or passed away, I don’t know which. In either case, his operation was bought up by a huge multi-national logging conglomerate which had operations just a few kilometres south, I suppose making it worth their while to get his cutting rights. The men he employed were all laid off. They were replaced by machines. The layoffs came from someone in Georgia who no doubt holds an MBA and knows the value of technological efficiency. I doubt that he’d know what a rough 2x6 is and I don’t think he’s someone with whom I’d want to have a glass of Scotch and negotiate the price of a pickup truck full of lumber. I generally show more discretion in choosing with whom I will drink.

How much creativity does the cooking crew get to employ at any pizza, seafood or pasta restaurant that is part of a national chain? When I pull up at the drive-thru at Tim Horton’s (in itself, not exactly a relationship building dialogue) to get my morning coffee, I don’t bother congratulating or thanking the service staff for how much I enjoyed my last coffee. The person who made the coffee was told exactly what measure of coffee grounds to use with a pre-determined quantity and temperature of water. Even the condiments are pre-measured. What would be the point of saying anything?

I am certain that all of those organizations are trading well on the TSE and NYSE, because I am also certain that the MBAs that laid off those sawmill workers are perfectly interchangeable with the MBAs that run the corporate offices of Red Olive or Lobster Garden or whatever. They specialize in running businesses efficiently. A large part of specialization has to do with the language of specialization. The corporate commanders of a restaurant chain and a logging conglomerate both understand share splitting, cost overruns, P&L statements, acid test ratios and labour costs. They will probably both stare vacuously if confronted with such enigmatic statements as “can’t blame John for not showing up today, his kid has mumps” or, “sometimes you just have to whack that adjuster with the side of your wrench to get it the blade just right for cutting’ or even, “I think you can go a little heavier on the garlic.” Quite simply, the human element is being removed from the workplace.  

This is something that probably started early in the 19th century when Adam Smith figured out that a needle maker could make more needles by using an assembly line. Each worker, prior to Smith’s brainstorm, cut wire, bent the eyes of the needles and sharpened the tips. Smith figured out that they could be much more productive if the tasks were divided up so that one worker cut wire, one bent the ends etc. Well, it sure sounded good to the factory owner and specialization was introduced to the workplace. Needless to say, it being the onset of the Industrial Revolution and all, assembly lines were generally met with thunderous applause. It should also be noted that Mr. Smith was a mathematics professor and it required someone with the keen, insightful and in depth knowledge of a mathematics professor to do the necessary calculations. Today, the same task could be accomplished by a primary school student with a pocket calculator which was put together on an assembly line in the Philippines.  Irony? 

It seems that those tasks in which a person might take pride for their specialized skills have become generalized tasks. At the same time, those tasks which a person might take pride in from doing a job from start to finish have become so specialized that it is no longer possible for that individual to take pride in their work. Similarly, most front line service providers cannot possibly get recognition for a job well done because the cashier’s station has become much the same as the assembly line, just as surely as waitresses are told exactly how much time they should spend at each customer’s table. Since pride in business ownership has become a thing of the past, why would the business managers concern themselves with pride in workmanship? Specialization, compartmentalization and technological advances (sorry Adam) means greater efficiency which means greater profits.

This begs another question then, why did we as a society allow things to get so out of hand? Well, for a number of reasons. Let’s look at the world of retail because, after all, that is where most of us will dispose of most of our income.  First off, people don’t generally worry about these things. Heck, if it’s good for the economy, it must be good for all of us, right? Well, ok, but rampant profit by one or two major organizations isn’t always good for the economy. That’s a whole other article. Second, people like what’s safe and they like what’s convenient. Half a dozen restaurants in every major city in North America with tasty, but virtually unchanging, menus simply can’t be beat for what’s safe. They certainly are a safer bet than say Sam’s Corner Curry Shack or Mom’s Diner. One massive department store that guarantees it will beat all of its’ competitors prices simply has no competition when it comes to convenience.  One might take note that when it has no competition literally, there will be no checks on what can be done with pricing or customer service.  In terms of convenience, by the way, I find that only seems to be the case until one gets inside those stores.  I feel another anecdote coming on, did you suspect?

Recently, I was making some purchases in  one of the major retail outlets that I have been describing here. I’d rather not say which one, but the name almost rhymes with ballpark. I should add that by sharing this particular story, it is not my intent to single out any specific retailer, I am certain that it could have happened anywhere.  It was approximately 7:00 on a fair summer evening, so the store was quite busy, probably with customers that work until 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon.  There were eight available regular cashier’s stations and six express checkout stations. Two of each were actually in operation. I counted fourteen people in one cashier’s line, twelve in the other and over twenty lined up for the ten items or less cashiers. I put my shopping cart off to the side and walked up to the customer service desk (something of a misnomer there, by my experience) I proceeded to ask for a manager. The conversation that ensued went something like this:

Cashier: “well sir, if something’s wrong, maybe I can help you.”

Me: “Yes, you can. You can get a manager, like I asked.”

Manager: “I’m sorry sir, what seems to be the problem?”

At this point, I moved slightly to my right to give the manager an unimpeded view of the situation of over forty customers waiting for service at four cash registers while ten other cash registers remained idle.

Me: “Do you see a problem behind me?”

Manager: “No”

Me: “Well then, I guess that’s the problem.”

At that point, I decided that I didn’t really need those purchases that badly and left them in the shopping cart. As addenda to this story, I would like to say: I am sure that the cashiers were doing their jobs as best they could, or at least to the expectations of their bosses, and people with whom I share this story always congratulate me for making my little stand.  I think more people should do the same.

I suppose I should try to wrap all of this up. We have become a society that by compartmentalizing work and by giving a sense of specialization to jobs which should be generalized, have created an atmosphere of complacency. We sort of watch these gradual changes slide past us until they are done deals and then, well it’s too late to do anything and we’re really too tired to care. Complacency begets apathy. The same apathy that allows us to not worry about what’s happening in the community on a day to day basis makes it pretty ok to not bother getting to know our neighbours, doesn’t it? Even while writing this, I mentioned to a visitor that if the guy across the street from me had his house robbed, I wouldn’t even know. I am sure that the opposite is true.  How ingrained must apathy  be when we see voter turnouts at all time lows? If we don’t care who’s at the wheel, can we really care if we’re about to crash?

These are not the only sources of our complacency and apathy, but they are certainly contributing sources. One could write volumes on the societal effect of stacking ourselves up in skyscrapers. Nevertheless, an attitude of apathy (also an avocation of alliteration, apologies) becomes pervasive. It becomes like a wasting disease. It’s rather like putting off doing something about procrastination.  How far does it go? The kid that mows the grass always mumbles and has bloodshot eyes. The old man down the street had a heart attack last spring.  How far do we let the details affect our lives? Do we need to care? Well, let’s at least start by paying attention. I’m going over to Steve’s for coffee now.