"Why do you need elevator attendants?" a puzzled expat friend of mine asked, shortly after he arrived in Beijing.
To an outsider, the person who operates an elevator - or lift in British English - may typify job redundancy. What on earth does it take to press a number that corresponds to the floor? What's the necessity for such a special profession?
I've also heard of complaints from expats who see these elevator ladies - it's a profession predominantly for females - as the personification of Big Brother. I don't know whether it's a thing of the past or the current situation as I have not met a nosy one myself. I'm sure I'd hate it if the elevator operators whom I come into contact with poke their noses into my comings and goings.
But no, those I've encountered are all nice and friendly. And come to think of it, they do perform a duty beyond that of pressing a few buttons. In a sense, they double as security guards. One example: Someone in my building had a broken lock and didn't bother to fix it, leaving his door unlocked for several months. I guess this would have been crazy in a building with unmanned elevators.
The real question is: For all the potential misgivings or benefits, shouldn't the profession be superfluous in the first place? Man designs machines to save manpower. In an economically efficient world, repetitive manual labour should best be performed by machines, leaving humans to more creative activities.
But we don't live in such a world, and sometimes economics is not the only law we should abide by. While it is the job of economists to study efficiency, the government needs to consider the broader human factor. A Beijing engineer once told me that many metropolises in China have done away with bus conductors, letting the driver oversee the automated depositing of bus fare. But not in Beijing, for the most part. The technology is available, but that would leave tens of thousands of low-skilled workers unemployed.
Now I'm no Luddite. Technologies have brought us an endless stream of wonders, making our lives easier and more comfortable. But the human cost of this kind of social advance is also real, especially to someone whose livelihood is threatened by it. As a society, we cannot shy away from taking these painful steps so that we can maintain our competitiveness and achieve progress, but at the same time we must always remember those who are negatively affected and ponder how to lessen their sufferings.
It is a delicate cost-and-benefit balance in not only economic, but also social, terms. A corporation needs only look at the bottom line, but a society at large needs to take care of the weak and disadvantaged. The "iron rice bowl" is indeed an impediment to progress, but designing jobs for low-skilled workers is not. On the contrary, it can create a higher level of harmony for our living environment. On a more personal level, it can add a unique human touch to things we take for granted.
When I first went to the United States, I marvelled at the convenience of customer service via telephone calls. In the past 10 years, things started to change. The numbers are still toll-free, but you can hardly talk to a live person any more. Instead, you have to wade through a jungle of recorded prompts and choices and wait forever. Surely companies have cut cost as a result, but imagine the aggravation that customers must endure.
On recent trips, I have found that automation has taken a giant leap forward. Some supermarkets have removed not only baggers - those who place your groceries into bags, but also all checkout clerks. Now, I have to scan the packaged goods and weigh vegetables all by myself. I'm sure the process will be a breeze in the future, but the time I tried it I was so frustrated that I yelled: "I'm taking this out without paying if you guys don't show up now."
To those of us with memories of China before the reform years, the word "supermarket" already implies self-service. Do we need to eliminate checkout clerks so that we can save a penny on our grocery? Will haircuts be the only business that involves human interaction?
Nowadays, when I see retired people guarding busy street corners and directing traffic, a feeling of appreciation wells up: They are doing something worthwhile, not superfluous, for all of us, something that traffic lights are supposed to do but not very well during rush hours. They make Beijing a more livable city, at least traffic-wise.
(China Daily 11/26/2005 page4)