In May, I stood in the rear galley of an airplane and watched as a line formed to berate the flight attendant next to me. We were at a gate at LaGuardia, our flight half an hour delayed, and the air inside the cabin was acrid with the aromas of anxiety sweat and bags of fast food procured at the gate. Impatient passengers squeezed past others hoisting carry-ons into overhead bins to jockey for position in the complaining queue, lodging grievances largely about things over which a flight attendant would have obviously little control: the airline’s decision to sell middle seats, the disruptive wait, the insolent tone of a different flight attendant.
I was tucked inside one of the tiny spaces usually reserved for the flight crew, because I had arrived at my assigned seat to find a man who had no intention of getting up. He gave nothing in the way of an explanation; instead, he stared up at me blankly, as though he had never before encountered the concept of assigned seating. The flight attendant had noticed our stalemate and offered to roust the man from my seat, but the situation felt too combustible to me, and 25C like too stupid a hill on which to die. The attendant said he’d find me another if I’d just wait in the back.
Since I’d arrived at the airport, I had been silently debating whether the conditions of the already dismal experience of flying had deteriorated even further since I’d last boarded a plane, in early 2020. I couldn’t put my finger on any concrete changes beyond the need to wear a mask—a minor, reasonable annoyance. It seemed worse, but after 15 months on the ground, maybe I just remembered flying as slightly better than it had been. When the last of the angry customers had been placated, I asked the flight attendant the question I’d been trying to answer all day.
He didn’t hesitate. “Yeah,” he told me. “It’s way worse.”
A few weeks later, the Federal Aviation Administration put some numbers to the most dire parts of the problem. Less than six months into 2021, airlines had reported more unruly passengers to the agency than they had in any full year since it began collecting data, in 1995. A Southwest flight attendant lost two teeth after a passenger punched her in the face. A Delta flight had to be diverted after a passenger threatened to take the plane down. Southwest and American Airlines have delayed bringing back alcohol sales, because of the added danger of getting people drunk; United is offering only lower-alcohol options such as beer and wine, and only on long flights.
Flight attendants are merely the tip of the service-work iceberg. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, videos of irate anti-maskers screaming, throwing things, and assaulting employees at big-box and grocery stores have become a social-media mainstay. As Americans return en masse to more types of in-person commerce, the situation only seems to be declining. At its most violent extreme, workers have been hospitalized or killed. Eight Trader Joe’s employees were injured in one such attack in New York, and in Georgia, a grocery-store cashier was shot over a mask dispute. Far more frequent are the accounts of short-fused shoppers becoming verbally abusive or otherwise degrading over slow service or sold-out goods. Earlier this month, a restaurant on Cape Cod reportedly was so overwhelmed with rude customers that it shut down for a “day of kindness.”
America’s ultra-tense political climate, together with the accumulated personal and economic traumas of the pandemic, have helped spur this animosity, which was already intense and common in the United States. But it’s hardly the only reason that much of the country has decided to take out its pandemic frustrations on the customer-service desk. For generations, American shoppers have been trained to be nightmares. The pandemic has shown just how desperately the consumer class clings to the feeling of being served.
The experience of buying a new television or a double cheeseburger in a store has gotten worse in your lifetime. It’s gotten worse for the people selling TVs and burgers too. The most immediate culprit is decades of cost-cutting; by increasing surveillance and pressure on workers during shifts, reducing their hours and benefits, and not replacing those who quit, executives can shine up a business’s balance sheet in a hurry. Sometimes, you can see these shifts happening in real time, as with pandemic-era QR-code-ordering in restaurants, which allows them to reduce staff—and which is likely to stick around. Wages and resources dwindle, and more expensive and experienced workers get replaced with fewer and more poorly trained new hires. When customers can’t find anyone to help them or have to wait too long in line, they take it out on whichever overburdened employee they eventually hunt down.
This dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that the United States has more service workers than ever before, doing more types of labor, spread thin across the economy—Uber drivers; day-care workers; hair stylists; call-center operators; DoorDash “dashers”; Instacart shoppers; home health aides; Amazon’s fleet of delivery people, with your cases of toilet paper and new pajamas in the trunk of their own car. In 2019, one in five American workers was employed in retail, food service, or hospitality; even more are now engaged in service work of some kind.
For people currently alive and shopping in America, this economic arrangement is so all-encompassing that it can feel like the natural order of things. But customer service as a concept is an invention of the past 150 years. At the dawn of the second Industrial Revolution, most people grew or made much of what they used themselves; the rest came from general stores or peddlers. But as the production of food and material goods centralized and rapidly expanded, commerce reached a scale that the country’s existing stores were ill-equipped to handle, according to the historian Susan Strasser, the author of Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Manufacturers needed ways to distribute their newly enormous outputs and educate the public on the wonder of all their novel options. Americans, in short, had to be taught how to shop.
In this void grew department stores, the very first of which appeared in the United States in the 1820s. The model proliferated in cities as the 20th century neared and industrial manufacturing expanded. By consolidating sales under corporate auspices in much the same way that factories consolidated production, businesses such as Wanamaker’s, Macy’s, and Marshall Field’s hinted at the astonishing ways American life would change over the next century. But consolidation also created a public-image issue, argues the historian William Leach in Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Corporate power wasn’t especially popular in fin de siècle America, where strike-breaking industrial barons taught those without wealth to mistrust the ownership class. People were suspicious of new types of big business and protective of the small dry-goods stores run by members of their communities.
Department-store magnates alleviated these concerns by linking department stores to the public good. Retailers started inserting themselves into these communities as much as possible, Leach writes, turning their enormous stores into domains of urban civic life. They hosted free concerts and theatrical performances, offered free child care, displayed fine art, and housed restaurants, tearooms, Turkish baths, medical and dental services, banks, and post offices. They made splashy contributions to local charities and put on holiday parades and fireworks shows. This created the impression that patronizing their stores wouldn’t just be a practical transaction or an individual pleasure, but an act of benevolence toward the orderly society those stores supported.
With these goals in mind, Leach writes, customer service was born. For retailers’ tactics to be successful, consumers—or guests, as department stores of the era took to calling them—needed to feel appreciated and rewarded for their community-minded shopping sprees. So stores marshaled an army of workers: From 1870 to 1910, the number of service workers in the United States quintupled. It’s from this morass that “The customer is always right” emerged as the essential precept of American consumerism—service workers weren’t there just to ring up orders, as store clerks had done in the past. Instead, they were there to fuss and fawn, to bolster egos, to reassure wavering buyers, to make dreams come true. If a complaint arose, it was to be resolved quickly and with sincere apologies.
As department-store barons built a market for their businesses, they were also quite intentionally building something far grander: class consciousness. Leach writes that the introduction of shopping was fundamental to forming middle-class identity at a particularly crucial moment, as the technological advances of the Gilded Age helped create the American office worker as we now know it. Cities swelled with this new kind of laborer, who had more disposable income and leisure time than previous generations—and whose lives were much different from the era’s industrial workforce, which toiled long hours for low pay in brutal, dangerous conditions. In this distinction, the department-store proprietors saw an opportunity.
Retailers won over this growing middle class by convincing its members that they were separate from—and opposed to—industrial workers and their distrust of corporate power, Leach argues. Department stores used tools such as credit accounts to encourage people to imagine the better life they deserved and to spend aspirationally. For the price of customers’ purchases, the stores’ legions of service workers gave the newly flush a sense of superiority, as well as a readily accessible group of inferiors on which to impose it. Customers might not have been able to afford a household staff to do their bidding like the era’s truly wealthy, but corporate stores offered them a little taste of what that would be like. The middle class began to see itself as the small-time beneficiaries of industrialization’s barons.
As department stores rose in cities across the country, another enduring facet of service work was gaining ground in other types of businesses: tipping. Previously confined to a few lavish European-owned hotels in America, tipping “aristocratized consumption,” Leach writes, offering the middle class another glimpse of upper-class comfort and power. Tipping ratcheted up the level of control that members of the middle class could exercise over the service workers beneath them: Consumers could deny payment—effectively, deny workers their wages—for anything less than complete submission.
In the 150 years that American consumerism has existed, it has metastasized into almost every way that Americans construct their identities. Today’s brands insert themselves into current events, align themselves with causes, associate patronage of their businesses with virtue and discernment and success. For some of them, this is now the primary way they market their products to consumers. Dove, for example, wants you to buy its soap because the brand has the right opinions on gender and body image. Companies such as Toms, Warby Parker, and Bombas have built businesses in part by promising that for every product you buy, they’ll give one to a person in need. If you’re sick of all the lefty virtue signaling, there’s always Black Rifle Coffee, for those who support the military and hate political correctness.
The efforts that Leach identified among turn-of-the-century department-store owners to paint their businesses as the true sites of popular democracy have been successful beyond what they probably could have imagined at the time. Most Americans now expect corporations to take a stand on contentious social and political issues; in return, corporations have even co-opted some of the language of actual politics, encouraging consumers to “vote with their dollars” for the companies that market themselves on the values closest to their own.
For Americans in a socially isolating culture, living under an all but broken political system, the consumer realm is the place where many people can most consistently feel as though they are asserting their agency. Most people in the United States don’t exactly have a plethora of opportunities to develop meaningful identities outside their economic station: Creative or athletic pursuits are generally cut off when people enter the workforce, fewer people attend religious services than in generations past, and loneliness and alienation are widespread. Americans work long hours, and many of those with disposable income earn it through what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”—the kind of empty spreadsheet-and-conference-call labor whose lack of real purpose and meaning, Graeber theorizes, is an ambient psychological stressor on the people performing it. What these jobs do provide, though, is income, the use of which can feel sort of like an identity.
This is not a feature of a healthy society. Even before the pandemic pushed things to further extremes, the primacy of consumer identity made customer-service interactions particularly conflagratory. Being corrected by a salesperson, forgotten by a bartender, or brushed off by a flight attendant isn’t just an annoyance—for many people, it is an existential threat to their self-understanding. “How many kinds of status do most of us actually have?” Strasser, the historian, asked me. “The notion that at the restaurant, you’re better than the waiters, it becomes part of the restaurant experience,” and also part of how some patrons understand their place in the world. Compounding this sense of superiority is the fact that so many service workers are from historically marginalized groups—the workforce is disproportionately nonwhite and female.
Because consumer identities are constructed by external forces, Strasser said, they are uniquely vulnerable, and the people who hold them are uniquely insecure. If your self-perception is predicated on how you spend your money, then you have to keep spending it, especially if your overall class status has become precarious, as it has for millions of middle-class people in the past few decades. At some point, one of those transactions will be acutely unsatisfying. Those instances, instead of being minor and routine inconveniences, destabilize something inside people, Strasser told me. Although Americans at pretty much every income level have now been socialized into this behavior by the pervasiveness of consumer life, its breakdown can be a reminder of the psychological trap of middle-classness, the one that service-worker deference to consumers allows people to forget temporarily: You know, deep down, that you’re not as rich or as powerful as you’ve been made to feel by the people who want something from you. Your station in life is much more similar to that of the cashier or the receptionist than to the person who signs their paychecks.
There are endless ways to make sense of the situation America is in now, in which new horror stories from retail hell make national news every few days, and stores and restaurants all over the country complain that no one wants to work for them. Perhaps the most obvious one is simply how damaging this whole arrangement is for service workers. Although underpaid, poorly treated service workers certainly exist around the world, American expectations on their behavior are particularly extreme and widespread, according to Nancy Wong, a consumer psychologist and the chair of the consumer-science department at the University of Wisconsin. “Business is at fault here,” Wong told me. “This whole industry has profited from exploitation of a class of workers that clearly should not be sustainable.”
As manufacturing jobs in the United States declined over the past half century, service jobs emerged as a new industrial workforce, shaping ever more elements of daily life, Wong explained. For many of these workers, the difficulty of finding non-service employment enables companies to pay low wages and keep their prices artificially low, which consumers generally like as long as they don’t have to think about what makes it possible. In theory, these conditions are supposed to encourage better performance on the part of the worker; in practice, they also encourage cruelty on the part of the consumer.
Modern businesses have invented novel ways to exacerbate conflicts between their customers and their workers. A big problem at airlines and hotels in particular, Wong said, is what’s called the “customer relationship management” model. CRM programs, the first and most famous of which are frequent-flyer miles, are fabulously profitable; awarding points or miles or bucks encourages people not only to increase the size and frequency of their purchases, but also to confine their spending to one airline or hotel chain or big-box store. Higher-spending customers access varying levels of luxury and prestige, often in full view of everyone else. Exposure to these consumer inequalities has been found to spark antisocial behavior in those who don’t get to enjoy their perks, the classic example of which is air rage—coach passengers who are forced to walk through first class to board a plane are more likely to become violent than those who board from the rear, directly into their own seating class.
These programs tend to expand nearly infinitely upward, according to Wong, as more and more people reach the benchmarks for entry into each level. That leads to more stratification, more consumer micro-identities, and more status anxiety about one’s place in the hierarchy. Service workers are left to fend for themselves in mediating the conflicts these programs create, absorbing the agita from which their employers wring profit.
Cooking or cleaning or delivering or helping is not inherently dehumanizing, but the understanding of these experiences baked into American consumer culture ensures that for workers, they often are. Workers must do what the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart, identified as “emotional labor.” The phrase has been co-opted to describe basically every kind of human interaction that someone could find objectionable, but it has a very specific meaning: Workers must stifle their natural emotional reactions to, in the case of those in the service industry, placate members of the consumer class. These workers are alienated from their own emotional well-being, which can have far-reaching psychological consequences—over the years, research has associated this kind of work with elevated levels of stress hormones, burnout, depression, and increased alcohol consumption.
It was into this house of cards that the pandemic crash-landed, and the collateral damage has largely been to the lives of workers. Americans were confronted with how little control they actually have over so many parts of life that normally feature the illusion of personal choice—health, government, safety, technology, travel. The truly wealthy and powerful had skipped town to their remote summer homes or ski chalets, many with their actual servants in tow, leaving the rest of us to rot. Agitated and desperate, many people turned to the realm in which they have long been promised the opportunity to exercise control. When that hasn’t worked out, they’ve made a mess. As usual, service workers are left to clean it up.