BOSTON - Have you seen those economists scratching their heads trying to understand the jobless recovery? Every time they run the numbers, they end up with a question mark: How is it possible that only 1,000 new jobs were created in the past month?
Well, maybe it's time we let them in on our little secret. The economy has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Only they aren't in the manufacturing sector. They aren't even in the service economy. They're in the self-service economy.
Companies are coming back to life without inviting employees back to work for one simple reason: They are outsourcing the jobs to us. You and I, my fellow Americans, have become the unpaid laborers of a do-it-yourself economy.
It all began benignly enough a generation ago when ATMs replaced bank tellers. The average American child may know that money doesn't grow on trees; it grows out of walls.
The ATM was followed by the self-service gas station. At first in the classic bait-and-switch, we were offered a discount for being our own gas jockey; now we have to pay a premium to have a person fill 'er up.
Now gradually, we are scanning our own groceries at the supermarket, getting our own boarding passes at airport kiosks and picking up movie tickets from machines that don't call in sick, go on vacation or require a pension.
People who used to have secretaries now have Microsoft Word. People who used to have travel agents now have the Internet. People who used to drop off their film to be developed have been lured into buying new cameras for the joy of printing or not printing pictures themselves.
We also serve (ourselves) by being required to wait longer for the incredible shrinking support system. When was the last time you called your health plan? The service consists of a hold button, a list of phone options and the strategic corporate decision that sooner or later a percentage of us will give up.
Remember 411? If you actually want information from a phone company today, you have to pay someone in Omaha to give you the new number of a neighbor in Albany.
If the phone breaks, you may have to dial fix-it-yourself. A new chapter in the annals of the self-service economy comes from a friend who was told by Verizon to go find the gray box attached to her house and test the line herself. The e-mail instructions told her merrily: "You don't have to be a telephone technician or an electrical engineer." Next year they'll be telling her to climb the telephone pole.
Then of course there is the world of computers. We have all become our own techie. A Harvard Business School professor actually told a reporter recently that we fix them ourselves because "there's a real love of technology, and people want to get inside and tinker with them." My friends have as much of a desire to tinker with computer insides as to perform amateur appendectomies.
But tech support has become less reliable than child support checks from an ex-husband. Consumer Reports found that 8 million people a year contact the tech support lines at software companies, and one-third of them don't get any help. These same companies have laid off more than 30,000 support workers and replaced them with messages telling us to fix our "infrastructure migration" by performing an "ip config/release" and"ip config/renew."
As for online help? If my Web server were managing 911, I would still be on the floor somewhere gasping for breath. The only part of the self-help economy that keeps us aloft is a battery of teen-agers fed and housed solely because they can get the family system back up. Oh, and if we finally find someone to perform a so-called service call, we end up with an alleged appointment for that convenient hour known as "when the cows come home."
I don't know how much labor has been transferred from the paid to the unpaid economy, but the average American now spends an extraordinary amount of time doing work that once paid someone else's mortgage. The only good news is that the corporations can't export the self-help industry to Bombay. Or maybe that's the bad news.
People, actual human beings who work and interact, are now a luxury item. The rest of us have been dragooned into an invisible unpaid labor force without even noticing. We scan, we surf, we fix and we rant. To which I can only add the motto of the do-it-yourself economy: Help!
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.