What Will Service Work Look Like Under Amazon?

Lately this moment in the American service industry feels somewhat distant. It was a response to a different time: Retail and service jobs were on the rise, both in objective terms and in their share of the total work force. From 1989 to 1999, while the economy lost more than 1.4 million manufacturing jobs, it gained more than twice as many in retail alone. Back then, some said that with a few twists of the dial and a better-educated class of consumers, service work could be remade into something more careerlike, offering employees structure, predictability and dignity — and wealthier customers a form of absolution.


Illustration by Tim Enthoven

It was, mainly, good marketing — triumphant liberal ideals expressed in the language of the heart. The economy of the late ’90s was characterized by exuberant consumerism; companies like Whole Foods had devised a way to make people feel better about the products they were buying as well as the people they were interacting with. Whole Foods employees, customers were informed, earned a ‘‘fair’’ wage; they had a say in how stores were managed and in what products they stocked; they were voluntarily given benefits; they were not regarded as employees but as ‘‘team members,’’ working for their employer’s profit while keeping an eye on the health and betterment of their communities.

This was a heartening vision for the future of the service sector, at least in comparison to the prevailing stereotypes of the time — the burger-flipping teen, the seasonal retail employee — which were growing increasingly antiquated. It was also an opportunistic pose, a strategy, subject to constant and total revision. Mackey, a self-described libertarian, had an angle to his munificence: As he saw it, his employees’ good fortunes were entirely dependent on his company, not government largess or regulations, and certainly not…

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