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`Service is our business' -- and everybody else's, too

A worker used to be somebody who produced goods. What else did a fellow get paid for? In 1880, in fact, 8 out of 10 workers were paid to produce goods, while only 2 out of 10 were employed to supply services. But by the year 2000, it is predicted, the proportions will be reversed -- and then some. Only 1 out of 10 workers will produce goods; 9 out of 10 will be paid to provide services.

The Service Economy, as it is known, promises to give new meaning to W. H. Auden's little joke: ``We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don't know.''

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Have we really grasped what life will be like when 9 out of 10 people you meet will be there to serve you, in some way or other, whether you want it or not?

Your TV repairman is the least of it. His sort of service still deals with goods -- as does the work of auto mechanics and the like. Old-fashioned service stuff!

The service of the future, and of the truly Now, deals with intangibles.

A professor at Northwestern University, John L. McKnight, remarks that the goods of the emerging Service Economy are needs -- ``new needs, unperceived needs, unmet needs.'' He offers as an example the case of an unnamed Canadian city where an elderly man, living alone, died. Days passed before anybody discovered him, and the story made headlines. The old response would have been private. Where were the man's family and friends? The new response is to invent still another service -- the city, McKnight reports, created the office of ``Recluse Manager.''

Whether recluses in Canada or anywhere else wish it or not, their loneliness will now be monitored. It's somebody's job.

If the service society, muttering its obligatory ``Have a nice day!'' will not leave recluses alone, who is safe?

Back in 1880, before service became the rage, what would people think of the apparatus that is beginning to surround us now? A whole industry of child psychologists, teen-age analysts, marriage therapists, and geriatric specialists is waiting to serve us -- insisting upon serving us -- at every point in Shakespeare's seven stages of life. At one end of the spectrum stands the ``birthing'' counselor. At the other end the ``bereavement'' counselor awaits.

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When it gets too much -- all this helping, all this urgent advice -- ``stress'' counselors will teach us how to relax, and, if necessary, how to breathe. When you're out to serve, nothing must be left to chance.

There is a kind of conspiracy among Auden's relentless helpers.

Based on the first premise of the Service Economy, nobody can do anything unassisted. Whether it is giving up smoking or surviving a divorce, one needs a ``support group'' -- presided over (aha!) by a service professional.

To keep the system humming, service professionals refer clients -- i.e., everybody else -- to one another in an endless circle of narrower and narrower sub-specialization.

Paradoxically, the more workers enter the service sector, the harder it is to get really necessary service. ``My plumber doesn't make house calls'' has become a standard joke as the water in the basement rises. The telephone operator, intoning her ``May I help you?'', has been replaced by a synthesizer -- on tape. Clerks in stores wander away with an uncanny sense of timing -- just when a customer has a question to ask.

The Better Business Bureau might well put warning labels on all enterprises whose motto reads: ``Service is our business.'' Things are not what they seem.

And yet, we are told, the gross national product is not-so-slowly turning itself into revolutionary commodities: service and information.

This means, for instance, that farmers who produce goods of the most essential kind are in a lot of trouble. The sort of service people who repair the farmers' tractors -- something definite like that -- are in scarcely less trouble. The bankers who hold the farmers' loans as members of the financial service sector may not be in tip-top shape. Still, they're a lot better off than the farmers or their mechanics. But the ad agencies that write commercials for the bankers who loan money to the farmers are doing just fine, thank you. Which leads to the economic law of the future: Servicing is better than making; and the less essential the service, the more it will be valued in the marketplace -- if, indeed, the marketplace of the future exists anywhere except as an abstraction within a computer.

Does this mean that we are in the process of creating a society in which middlemen will be stacked on top of middlemen, like a human pyramid -- with nobody at the bottom?

Stay tuned. We journalists -- middlemen in the Service Economy, Information Division -- will keep you posted as if our jobs depended on it. And they do. A Wednesday and Friday column

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