Saturday, March 31, 2007

Are People And Cash Obsolete?

Ever see that commercial set in a food service establishment in which the line flows smoothly and continuously like a well-oiled machine as each customer swipes their debit card, takes hold of their purchase and leaves while the counter staff smoothly and continuously bags the next purchase and hands it off to each next customer until some unsuspecting slob whips out dollar bills to pay for his purchase? The whole smooth operation jerks and jolts. The line comes to a stop. Customers spill their food and drinks as they fall over each other like tumbling dominoes. The “casher” gives the customer a “how dare you use cash here” look.

Millions of Americans can watch that commercial and say, “Yeah, I get that. Ha ha ha.”

We are becoming a cashless society. Debit cards are accepted nearly everywhere, even McDonalds. One day we’ll be asked to show an ID to use currency.

We are also becoming a self-serve society. Pay-at-the-pump self-service gasoline buying seems to be the norm. The self-serve checkout option has expanded to many grocery stores, Wal-Marts and even Lowe’s. Scan it yourself, swipe your card, leave.

I was thinking about this as I went to a Post Office to Express Mail an envelope today. The forms and envelopes are available on the counter in the lobby and there is a kiosk one can use to complete the process. However, I decided to stand in line to buy postage and mail my package because I wanted a real live breathing human to handle the transaction.

Is that an outdated preference?

I assume that self-serve technology is meant to serve two purposes: save time for the consumer and save costs for the company (which in theory would lower costs for the consumer). In this case, the technology would not have saved me any time. I was at the only Post Office in my county still open at 1pm on a Saturday, yet I was in and out of line in less than five minutes. The customer fumbling with the Express Mail kiosk when I entered the line was still fumbling when I left. I rarely use next-day shipping so I would most likely have been fumbling when it was my turn.

In addition to saving time using humans, the Postal Service human who handled my transaction asked me how I was doing, informed me that stamp prices are rising in May, thanked me for my transaction and wished me a wonderful weekend. The kiosk would have remained silent.

Before you call me old-school, I’ll point out that I used my debit card instead of cash. I nearly always use my debit card instead of cash. It’s easy, convenient and provides me a printed record of my transaction to help me feel guilty later for having purchased those items. It now seems unusual to use currency to buy anything selling for more than a few dollars.

Maybe I am old-school about self-serve checkout, however. I usually go to the register staffed by a person, in part because every time I have used the scan-it-myself checkout at Wal-Mart, a person had to fix a problem anyway. On my last visit to a Lowe’s or Home Depot, I purchased several items that the cashier had to match to photos for a price; that would have required human intervention at the self-serve checkout, so why bother?

Direct deposit and online banking is convenient but we never see a human bank teller. We can fly from DC to Orlando, from ticket purchase to luggage check-in to the flight itself (if we sleep during food service) without a single word of conversation with a US Airways employee.

Asimov’s robot books tell fascinating stories about the potential of machines with positronic brains doing all the work but the fiction is getting close to reality.

We are social animals yet we are rapidly reducing our points of human contact. The idea of helpful and time-saving do-it-yourself technology is not what bothers me. It’s the growing lack of human connection I don’t like.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Too Damn Busy

When did our lives get so busy?

Work, commute, soccer, ballet, grocery, cleaners, haircut, PTA, more work at home that didn’t get done at the office, emails, hardware store, a volunteer meeting, pharmacy, gas station, dinner, iffy sleep. For some people, that’s the task list for just one day.

Maybe our parents did this much when we were kids, but it seems these activities were spread out over weeks and not all on the same day.

My Dad’s schedule in the 1960s: breakfast, a 20-minute bus ride, work from 8 till 4:30, a bus home, dinner with the family, a house project or homework help, a little TV, then sleep.

Mom’s schedule then: cook breakfast and make our lunches, take us to school, read the paper and watch a little TV, clean the house or wash clothes, make dinner, watch TV, then sleep.

Life in the Mayberry era may seem boring, but I don’t recall any stress. Our days weren’t scheduled to the minute. We had time to spend with family and friends. My sister and I had hobbies and school-related activities, but at a manageable quantity.

Now it’s just non-stop stuff! In my case, work, commute, more work at home because I didn’t finish it at the office, attempts to enjoy my other interests, but little or no time left to spend with family and friends. And our house is stacked with unfinished projects.

And we don’t even have kids! I can’t even imagine what that would be like these days.

While I enjoy the challenges and rush of a busy professional life and the numerous opportunities for personal fulfillment, I think we as a society need to slow down a little. Maybe a lot.

Stop and smell the roses is a suggestion with real potential in 2007.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Fifty Something Is One

This weekend is the 1-year anniversary of this blog. Seems like a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned during twelve months of writing about Boomer things.

- In the U.S., there are more than 80 million Baby Boomers, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. The leading edge Boomers are turning 61 this year, including the present President and his predecessor.

- Fifty is today’s forty or thirty, depending who you ask and who you are. We’re not your Daddy’s fifty-somethings. We earn more, spend more, live longer, act and look younger than fifty-somethings of even 10 years ago. We often think we’re even younger than we look, which makes us a bit delusional too.

- Most of us have kids, some have grandkids; I have neither. Roughly half of fifty-somethings are no longer married to our first spouses.

- Those of us who are AARP members rarely admit it. But the discounts are great … uhh, I mean I’ve heard they’re great.

- I have made a few cyber friends during the past year, most of whom are younger than Boomer age. Thanks for your visits, inspiration and attention; I’d love to meet you face to face some time.

- Two people inspired me to get started with this. Melanie, a dear friend and Boomer who has been in and out of my life for thirty-three years (I’ve lost track of her again) and Diner Girl, a Gen-Xer friend I’ve known for fourteen months and who I can’t thank enough for her contribution to the project we work on together on a regular basis.

A key observation I’ve made during the past year: ageism and age obsession definitely exist in Boomerville and maybe we did this to ourselves. My own age group rebelled against our elders with the warning, “don’t trust anyone over 30.” A popular Who song from our youth says, “hope I die before I get old.” (The singer of that lyric just turned 63 and still tours).

We find ourselves with fewer older role models sharing wisdom and experience and our youth worship interferes with career opportunity at the very same point in time when we are most able to work longer. Has our obsession with youth backfired on us?

I work in the media and we are probably guilty of expanding our society’s youth obsession. My company does not do anything obvious regarding age but they are probably guilty of silent ageism, perhaps the worst kind. There are about 200 employees in my collection of eight radio stations and my best guess counts only eleven who are older than 50. Of that eleven, only seven of us live in front of a microphone.

Many readers of this blog are Gen-Xers who have said on their blogs that they “feel old” because they are now in their 30s or 40s. That tells me that 50 is still a benchmark for “old” and sometimes I catch myself feeling that way too.

My personal fear about being halfway through my 50s is that I have nearly half a life yet to live, but no clear guide to lead the way. In my youth the path was painfully simple: school, job, marriage, kids, retirement, nursing home. Boomers have changed the rules up to the point of redefining retirement, but the next road sign says Sharp Curve Ahead.

I’m optimistic about our future and my future, but there is a little voice deep inside my brain that says “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Sometimes that is a scary voice.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Actors Now and Then

Isn’t it fascinating to see popular actors in their "noteworthy" earlier roles? Here are some of my favorites. A few surprises, ey?

Vincent D’Onofrio as a detective in Law & Order: CI now and as the main “bug” in Men In Black then.

Sally Field recently and decades ago as the star of a 1960s show The Flying Nun.

Tony Shalhoub as Monk now and as an alien in Men In Black then.

Courtney B. Vance as a District Attorney on Law & Order now and as a sonar wiz in Hunt For Red October then.

That hottie in the Mercury commercials now (her name is Jill Wagner) and in an earlier role.

Anthony Edwards on ER, as Goose in Top Gun and as a nerd in Revenge of the Nerds.

LeVar Burton in Star Trek: The Next Generation and as Kunta Kinte in Roots.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


I can't believe it's already March. And it's rainy and windy here tonight.

Something new this March ... a very early switch to Daylight Savings Time ... March 11th.

That's all. I just wanted to write something tonight. Seeya later.