American Airline 370.
(photo credit: Gene Blevins/Reuters)
Sometimes you can actually see the global mega-trends that you read about taking
shape in front of you at the most micro-level possible. When that happens, you
realize two very important things. One is that the big talk and the abstract
theorizing are not material for academic discussions but are issues that play
out painfully in the real world. The other is that the hype that typically
surrounds these topics – “a fundamental, far-reaching, earth-shattering, or
whatever change” – is not exaggerated but accurate.
When planning an
overseas trip, my practice in recent years has been to check out the projected
journey online, at one or more of the search sites specializing in the travel
business that offer flights, hotels and all the rest. Sometimes I also check out
what the airlines relevant to my projected route are offering on their sites.
Armed with that information, I email my travel agent and say, “This is what I am
being offered online, please match or beat it.”
Of course, there was a
time when I simply contacted the travel agency directly and defined what I was
looking for and relied on their ability and effort. In the best case, in those
days, you could approach two or more agencies and see what that brought – but
that was about the most you could do on your own. Over the last 10, maybe 15,
years, as the search sites have become steadily better – more accessible,
faster, with a wider range of options and with more information on each offer
they make – the amount you could achieve on your own gradually increased. This
put the customer willing and able to make this electronic effort in a steadily
better position vis-à-vis the travel agent who, after all, is only a middleman
between the final customer and the airlines.
because my travel agency is good – i.e., efficient and knowledgeable – I have
found that it has been able to at least match the online offer I have challenged
it with, and often it was able to beat it either on price or in other areas
(terms of payment, other or better services, etc.). Until now.
for the first time, my travel agent was comprehensively defeated by the search
site’s engine. The challenge in question was a fairly straightforward
Israel-US-Israel roundtrip, albeit with different points of arrival and
departure in the US. In response, the site offered a very broad range of
options, including a slew of European airlines offering connections via their
home cities, as well as American airlines and, of course, El Al (who were
hopelessly uncompetitive, as usual).
It was also very easy to adjust the
travel parameters, such as dates, times of day, cities of arrival and departure,
etc., to check out additional alternatives. In all of this, the site is always
going to beat correspondence with a human travel agent. But the bottom line was
simple and clear-cut: The site’s prices were cheaper – in some cases, by as much
as 10 percent – than those the travel agency came back with.
have to be a computer geek to understand what has happened: The algorithms used
by the search engines in the travel sites are now so sophisticated that even a
good travel agent cannot compete, whether on price, richness of offer (how many
alternatives) or technical factors, such as accessibility (going online at
midnight), speed and efficiency. The result is that human travel agents have
been rendered expensive and inefficient, so that, in the travel business at
least, the process of technological change has reached passed the point where
humans are no longer necessary. Physical travel agencies employing human agents
are on the way to extinction.
The same is true for a large range of
professions, jobs and places of work. Brokers and intermediaries are the most
vulnerable – travel, insurance and other agents – but much larger swathes of the
labor force are affected. The travel agencies that don’t exist anymore don’t
employ cleaning ladies, window cleaners or even computer technicians, and their
staff don’t buy lunch at the nearby eateries – and so on. As for secretaries,
they began disappearing with the arrival of the personal computer 30 years ago,
and their demise is largely complete.
The mega-trend at work in the
workplace is that in developed economies, people are increasingly not at work.
They are being replaced, first by other people in distant countries who do the
same job much cheaper, and then by computers that are cheaper and better in
every respect. The grim prospect of large sections of the population being
unemployed or underemployed on a long-term basis was typically countered by the
argument that in the past, the labor market always created new jobs to replace
the ones made obsolete by technological progress; e.g., the wagon makers went to
work on Henry Ford’s production line. But now the production line is “manned” by
robots – and soon even the domestic help will be a robot.
The issue of
the availability or disappearance of jobs is therefore no longer merely a matter
of macroeconomic management over the business cycle but is instead a permanent
feature of life at the level of individuals and nations. What can be done to
retain the jobs that exist, or at least to replace the ones that are doomed with
others that generate equivalent real income? You won’t hear answers – you won’t
even hear the question asked – in the current Israeli election campaign. But
expect it to feature, perhaps prominently, in the next