When people become cogs

The cornerstone of the industrial revolution was the simple idea that management could dramatically increase productivity by buying machines that did what they were told, were cheap and could scale.

As we’ve moved to a service economy, though, machines can’t handle much of the work. People do.

I thought of this the other day as I got yet another outbound telemarketing call, this one from the local Yellow Pages. The caller, when pressed, admitted he was calling me from India.

I spoke to him for a while and then his supervisor. They were both risking their jobs, though, because everything they did was ruled by the script. Follow the script or lose your job. Follow the script or see your pay docked. Follow the script or you don’t get a good commission.

What so many people in the USA and Europe don’t realize is that their jobs are being scripted. Relentlessly. And once they’re scripted, why exactly should the boss keep paying you? There’s someone cheaper– in another state, in a prison, in a beautiful country with a low cost of living–who can follow your script instead of you.

This is the giant unwritten headline of our post-industrial economy. If your job isn’t creative/interactive or local, it’s probably going to go away. Offshore software programmers charge by the line, and the boss doesn’t have to meet them or give them benefits. Just because you can code/call/file/process or type doesn’t mean you’re secure. The winners are going to be the bosses (quick, become a boss!) and the fast-changing creative types. That and the folks with a jackhammer on your local street corner.

This is great news for people willing to work cheap, especially those with talent and a local economy with a low cost of living. Of course, they’re not safe either, because there’s always someone willing to take their place once they become too expensive.

I think our export of “good” jobs is a fine thing. It makes the world a smaller, better and more prosperous place. When you woke up this morning, though, that probably wasn’t the first thing on your mind. You were worried about your favorite person–you.

So, what should you do? Now, before it’s too late, realize one basic truth: Safe is Risky.

Cogs don’t take risks. But cogs are the ones that are next to go.