America's Productivity Secret? You.

America's dirty little productivity secret: Cost-cutting companies are getting customers to do their work for them.

I've discovered a secret outsourcing plan that may account for millions of lost American jobs, and it's right in my own home. It may be in yours too. It all started with my friend Althea. Last night, Althea and I had scheduled a girls' night out. Just getting one such evening on the docket requires the logistical skills of a package-delivery network, so imagine my disappointment when I picked up the phone around 5 p.m. that day and all I could hear was a loud groan. I could only catch a few words, many of which I can't repeat here, but the gist of it was, "It's that blankety-blank insurance company again, and we have to change the dates for our trip, and they've given my mother some new medicine I've got to find out about, and there's an error in the bank statement. I only have tonight. There's no other time. I'm so sorry!"

The good news was, I understood. The bad news was, I understood. Althea faced an onslaught of family-survival tasks, and the rare appearance of a few hours of discretionary time exerted an irresistible magnetic force. Cutbacks at the insurance company and bank have ripped out most customer service, which costs about $4.50 an hour, in favor of Web self-service at about 65 cents an hour. The travel agent was once a trusted friend who could help plan the most complex trip. But cost-cutting among airlines and hotels put that agent out of business. The new one she contacted charges about $150 for the same work, as well as additional fees for each change in reservations. So Althea does it all herself — on the Internet.

The hospital in which her mom's doctor practices has instituted strict new productivity targets to reduce costs. He's allowed only 8.8 minutes with each patient. So there's no time to explain new drugs. No, that would be another item to be researched on the Internet.

Now I faced a few hours of discretionary time myself. Hoping to shed new light on Althea's predicament, I decided to, er, do some Internet research. There I found the recently published Stanford study "Ten Years After the Birth of the Internet: How Do Americans Use the Internet in Their Daily Lives?" According to the data, about 54 million of us between the ages of 18 and 64 use the Internet for 21 hours each week. A conservative analysis suggests that about four of those hours are dedicated to the sorts of things Althea was doing: personal and family-survival tasks such as travel research and booking, banking, event scheduling, shopping, or education.

That translates into 5.4 million workweeks each week. Let's say that in the old world, we might have had to do as much as half of this stuff anyway, but less conveniently offline. So, being conservative, there are still 2.7 million extra workweeks per week that we're now saddled with.

I felt as though I had just stumbled upon the clandestine documents of the elders of Davos. Want to know the secret weapon in America's race for productivity and global competitiveness? It's Althea! The much-touted self-service economy is actually a brilliantly concealed strategy to outsource American jobs. Instead of sending them overseas, though, we are sending them after hours to Althea and the other 54 million of us.

Jobless recovery? Hah! The recovery is throwing off jobs aplenty. They're just unpaid — no salaries or benefits, only overtime. We join together each evening to complete the work our corporations can no longer afford to pay for. Poor darlings, they need our help!

But as companies tout productivity increases and gleefully sell us on the pleasure and convenience of self-service, there's a fly in the ointment. The 54 million "average Internet users" are already giving up 70 minutes each day with their families and about 25 minutes of sleep. Most Americans complain of shrinking discretionary time, with working mothers reporting less than one hour a day. As much as we may want to be good soldiers in America's shadow workforce and help out our poor corporations, we are simply running out of time!

America's productivity strategy may harbor the seeds of its own demise in another way too: stress. In 2003, Americans spent $36 billion on relaxation products, almost the same amount as the annual global expenditure on aircraft maintenance and repair. Little wonder that 67% of respondents to an Accenture survey "are willing to pay more for better services" in areas they value such as health and travel. If my friend Althea or one of your friends has any time left over in their discretionary daily hour, maybe they'll be willing to sell it to you.

Shoshana Zuboff is the coauthor of The Support Economy (Viking, 2002). Join her online discussion.

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