Peter Atwater is the President of Financial Insyghts and an adjunct lecturer at William & Mary, a public research university in Virginia. In this post, he argues that the era of user-defined customisation has led to those at the bottom of the food chain wielding increased power in daily life.
When Burger King invited its customers to “have it your way” almost 50 years ago, it launched the era of mass customisation. Now, whether it’s our latte at Starbucks or a show on Netflix, many of today’s most popular products and services enable us to enjoy a product as we see fit.
And it’s not just about what we want, but we can also choose when and where we want things too. From Doordash to Uber, the post-financial crisis era has been awash in companies fulfilling our “me here now” desire. What was once a privilege available only to the wealthy is now affordable to all. Thanks to technology, we have democratised Downton Abbey. For those “Upstairs”, there is a sea of “Downstairs” cooks, valets and footmen poised to fulfil our request when the bell is rung.
If today’s vast individualised delivery business model had been unnoticed, COVID fully exposed it. Self-quarantining has never been easier. For the nimble and the wealthy, there has been little reason to go out. Everything can come to the door.
Many are now suggesting that not only did COVID accelerate the “me here now” economy, but that the business model has a blisteringly bright future ahead. This week, citing Warner Brothers’ decision to deliver all its new 2021 films on its streaming service, HBO Max, New York Times technology columnist Shira Ovide wrote, “If this is the moment when entertainment changes forever, it won’t only be because streaming won. It will also be because total control is irresistible.”
As the “me here now” economy has shown, total control certainly is irresistible. I mean, who doesn’t like to be waited on?
What I am afraid Ms. Ovide and many others appear to miss is that our current perception of “total control” over these services is deeply flawed. We aren’t in control at all. Unwittingly, we have become extraordinarily reliant. Like the “Upstairs” at Downton Abbey, we have become so used to being served, that we have lost the ability to do things on our own. We are now beholden to Uber drivers, UPS deliverymen and Instacart shoppers. Dig into last week’s Labor Report figures, and you will see that job growth in November was dominated by “couriers” and “warehouse workers”.
A century ago, the elite’s dependence on others was highly concentrated in those working on its own farms and in nearby villages. They knew the names of those who served them. Today’ many are served by faceless men in brown shorts and women working in “ghost kitchens”. The crowd sees many of its most critical providers as interchangeable — if it sees them at all.
While policymakers complain that many of the companies these workers serve are too powerful, I can’t help but wonder whether the workers themselves aren’t even more powerful. A strike by UPS drivers and Amazon warehouse workers would bring the parts of the American economy to its knees.
Today, the notion of such a widespread employee revolt seems laughable to the beneficiaries of the “me here now” economy. Many perceive "gig workers" as grateful for whatever opportunities they have, and even where unions do exist, they are thought to be impotent in a weak economy. Those Upstairs see the deck highly stacked against labour today.
This perception of invincibility cautions that the risk of a worker uprising is far higher than they think. Among the most striking divergences of the K-Shaped Recovery is the one within the “me here now” economy itself. Those who benefit most from it sit atop the K’s arm, while those who deliver it are highly concentrated on the leg.
Unless economic conditions improve, those at the bottom will have little choice but to act — if only to be heard. And there, the crowd is naive to assume that disgruntled workers will need collective bargaining or unions to be effective. As the past decade has shown, today's social media platforms can propel disjointed grassroots efforts into cohesive national movements overnight. All it takes is resonance.
While mass customisation is likely to remain a key aspect of future economies, its adoption has unknowingly changed the power dynamic. Those who deliver the “me here now” economy are the ones now truly in charge. Given the clear economic disparity, it is hard not to imagine the moment when they too demand to have it their way.
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