Monday, April 25, 2011

Service economy anxiety pt III, or good help is hard to understand

Over the past couple posts, I’ve been writing about America's collective uneasiness with our long shift to a service-based economy, citing a range of examples that seem to express what I'm calling our Service Economy Anxiety. I've written about our collective desire to nostalgically celebrate the skilled trades (through the artisanal movement and elsewhere) as well as the frequency and volume of complaints about customer service on social media platforms. But the richest and most dynamic cultural expressions are often produced by artists and writers who intuitively tap into this underlying anxiety as a source for their work.

I think I first noticed the popular expression of this anxiety in Louis CK's now famous "Everything's amazing and nobody's happy..." riff on Conan (here). His monologue focuses on how the amazing advances in technology have made us impatient with just about all kinds of service, including the technological replacements for personal service.

But once I got sensitized to the importance of customer-service content in popular culture I started to see these scenes everywhere.

Just last night, watching a TIVO’d episode (Season 3, Epi 4: Mitten, cited here) of Nurse Jackie, I saw the indomitable Edie Falco pretend to be a restaurant manager in order to confront an arrogant customer berating a waitress for failing to get his order right. The waitress/customer confrontation is pretty standard fare, almost an iconic representation of social relations of any era. (Think Five Easy Pieces to Seinfeld)

But you don't have to very work hard to see how this scene is particular to our current cultural moment: 1) Edie F isn't an irate customer but a service vigilante, stepping to address an injustice, like the Consumerist come to life. 2) Eddie's nurse’s uniform positions her as an iconic leader of the service professions 3) most most revealing of all are the dynamic of the scene. In order to make her case, she turns to the arrogant customer’s dining companion and asks him if he’s a client. When the dining companions replies that he is, Edie then asks him if he wants to do business with an asshole like this. He replies, “No...Actually, my daughter is a waitress.”

Past versions of this would have likely called out the differences between between the two rich white guys dressed like lawyers or bankers and the women serving them. But in Nurse Jackie the distinction is collapsed to make a point about shared social responsibility. Don't be assholes to service pro's; after all, they are all somebody's daughter. (And yes I'd argue the gender politics are no accident either, but that would require another post).

Nor it need hardly be mentioned—though I’ve mentioned it before—that the show Nurse Jackie is itself all about privileging the nurse’s work of attentive personal care over the work of the self-interested and generally flawed doctors--the higher-status experts, who are the professional equivalents of the assholes Nurse Jackie castigates in the restaurant.

But the freshest and funniest take on our service economy anxiety has to be this year's 6-part IFC special Portlandia. The source of most of its comedy—as my clever wife first pointed out—is the social confusion and blurred roles caused by our service economy.

Virtually every one of the first six episodes has at least one scene that represents a character perplexed by how they are supposed to behave as a provider or receiver of service. Portland's notoriously lefty social politics create the raw material for this confusion, but the confusion extends beyond political correctness to the nature of the work itself. In scene after scene, service providers and recipients stumble awkwardly back and forth across line of uncertain authority, trying to figure out who is actually in charge. Often, the service provider tries to redefine the role to something other than service: they want to be friends or educators or therapists, almost anything but old-fashioned servants.

In the opening episode, a waitress at a progressive, lefty cafĂ© doesn’t just tell the diners that their chicken is local, free range and “all across the board organic” but actually produces its “papers,” which documents its pedigree. (Clip here under "Is it local?") "His name was Colin," she tells the diners, the series' creators and co-stars, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, but of course even the papers don’t satisfy Fred and Carrie who leave to “check out” the farm on which Colin was raised.

In another episode (clip here), a spot-on parody of the Ace Hotel (renamed The Deuce), the show mocks the boutique hotel chain’s notoriously crappy service with Carrie playing a hostess, trying to bond with customers angry over the lack of attention even though she’s the one who has failed to serve them.

And then there is episode 3 in which Fred and Carrie discover that their maid is in fact their favorite artist and cultural hero—indie songwriter Aimee Mann. The most slapstick representation yet of our current confusion about our roles as service purchasers and providers, Fred and Carrie fall over themselves trying to ingratiate themselves with the hired help. They might be paying but they aren't in charge. In Portlandia, capital is no match for cultural capital.

In the final episode, W+K (which seems to have some involvement in the series) pokes fun at itself by documenting Carrie’s first day on the job at the famed agency (clip Wieden and Kennedy). While there are a handful of obvious jokes about hipsters trying to signify how cool their job is--birthday parties for dogs and dodge-ball brainstorming sessions--the deeper social comedy is about our newly uneasy relationship to our co-workers.

In her first moments on the job, Carrie is invited to sign a birthday card for a woman she has never met. The show plays up the artificially intense emotion for comic effect (this is advertising’s job after all: instant affect!) but the creepiness lingers, and should be familiar to any of us who have worked in environments which strive to erase boundaries between professional and personal life. Throughout the scene as Carrie is bombarded by increasingly personal questions and requests, her puzzled expression seems to ask: Who are these people anyway? Are they my colleagues? My bosses? My friends? My family? Is this a job, a lifestyle, a cult, or what?

Versions of these anxious questions are ones the show poses over and over again.

It's easy to forget that it wasn't always like this, but you want to be reminded just how uncomfortable we are our new roles, just read a novel from the first half of the century to remember how comfortable we—or our English friends—once were feel telling servants how to behave.

The distinction between providers and receivers of service was once clearly divided along class and then professional lines. Those distinctions are now long gone. We're all serving somebody now. We have adjudicate our roles in each and every interaction as we simultaneously try to pretend that something more meaningful (an education, a relationship, a bond, enlightenment) than just plain service is happening.

It's exhausting of course but no one said customer service was easy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Service Economy Anxiety, pt II or how we complain now

Our uneasiness about our nation’s long shift to service economy has spun off a number of cultural expressions.

A few examples I cited in the last post were related to our attempt to hold onto the myths and values of the skilled trades even as they become marginalized in the nation's economic life. It seems to me that this anxiety might also be seen in the widespread use of social media to complain about customer service.

Almost every major brand on earth now has a Facebook page dedicated to failures in customer service, or in the parlance of soc-med: how much they suck. Sears sucks as does Home Depot as does as does JC Penney. JP Morgan sucks. Fidelity sucks. Bank of America suuuuucks. McDonalds sucks. Burger King sucks. All the airlines suck of course. As do all the telecoms. And all the cable companies.

And branded twitter hashtags can sound almost biblical in their Job-like litanies devoted to the miseries inflicted by bad service. Above is a Cablevision thread but just about any brand + sucks will tell the same story.

When any form of expression becomes pervasive it's hard to hear what’s new and strange about it anymore. So if you want to refresh your experience of all this complaining, try getting a member of the boomer generation (a parent will do for many of us) to read one of the “X brand sucks” threads and watch their faces wrinkle into one of those “why do people waste time on this unpleasant nonsense” expressions.

In the most annoying and yet apt expression of the era, these old people just don’t get it. We may like to think that what they don’t get is how empowered we are now that we can complain on social media to brands who better listen or WATCH OUT because we can spread our complaints to the four corners of the earth. But the generation gap doesn’t work that way. Older generations aren’t necessarily blind to contemporary experiences. They just don’t need what we need. They got and get their satisfactions elsewhere.

What the non-net-complaining-generation don't get is that our new social rules have been defined by our new social-economic roles. We are a nation of service providers providing service to a nation of service providers. No wonder we are so judgmental, so impatient, so demanding, so intolerant of minuscule FAIL-ures. Every time our service economy fails us, we feel implicated in the exchange. How do we expect to make it, unless we all give %110 all the time, people. Pro-class members of a previous generation would have never dreamed of asking to change places with a cashier or barista; we contemporary service pros will happily do it: just to show them show how it's done.

Consumer advocates argue that we complain so often now because we can. And that’s probably true. (It's certainly and obviously true social media has become an important tool of political activism.) But it seems to me it's also true that we complain so often because we need to. It's a point of pride, a reminder of the expectations we all have to meet. It's service we were born for. It’s Bergdorf's we mourn for.

Of course not all of us are blind to the cultural contradictions of the service economy. I've recently become sensitized to the prevalence of scenes in TV shows and movies that represent customer service failures, including an entire series that seems devoted to the social tensions created by our service-to-service culture, Portlandia. But more on that next time...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Service Economy Anxiety, pt I

While economists differ on the practical implications of America’s long shift to a service economy, almost every discussion of the change carries with it the suggestion, however faint, that something essential to our national character is being lost—some native spark of boldness, ingenuity and determination. While we still want to align the American character with the pioneers, inventors and farmers who founded and built our country, the stat's show that we've become a nation of cashiers, marketers and money managers, careers that require more decorum than boldness, more social intelligence than ingenuity, more emotional endurance than determination.

Our cultural anxiety over this perceived loss has found many expressions. Our butchers, bakers and candlestick makers might be increasingly marginalized in our nation's economic life, but we're far from ready to give up on the values and myths we associate with the skilled trades. It's visible in the long rise of the artisanal movement which has transformed previously low-status jobs like butchers and bakers into forms of performance art (at least in Brooklyn) as well as inspired manifestos like Crawford's recent Shop class as Soulwork that argues for the fundamental, philosophical value of working with one's hands. Only by making, Crawford claims, can we liberate ourselves from the soul-killing labor of managing and serving.

My own research with Creative Class folks supports Crawford's claim that a life devoted to customer service can make a man feel, well, less manly. The vast majority of pro-class men I've interviewed over the years actively seek out hands on work in their off hours--from farming to carpentry--because, as they put it, it just seems more "real." Their remarks repeatedly turn to the uneasiness that their two hands aren't being put to much use. "I want to see that I've actually made something...accomplished something.." "At work there are a lot days when I'm not sure what I've done. I know I've done something, but it's hard to describe."

Another manifestation of what am I calling service economy anxiety is the way social media platforms are rapidly transforming into giant forums for complaints about service. Just about every brand on Facebook now has a page devoted to how much it sucks, but more on that next time.