UBIquitous Decline

Written by: Miri
April 8, 2024
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I wrote last time about the inevitable collapse of the vastly over-inflated university sector ('degree mills', as some call them, '18-30 holidays with a library attached', as others prefer, or - most accurately in my opinion - 'Satanic finishing schools'). Although this will be sad for those who lose their jobs as a result, overall, I can't help but see this as a huge social plus.

As I explored in my last article, universities have perniciously poisoned the cultural conversation, as well as turning a whole generation of young people into dysfunctional, delusional monsters (I mean, it's literally turned them green).

So, we could certainly do with a whole lot less of them, not least because they've now become such devious scams, churning out useless qualifications which not only leave graduates saddled with enormous, often un-repayable debts, but less qualified for work than when they went in (increasingly, employers prefer school leavers to graduates, as they retain the discipline instilled into them at school - often lost at university - whilst lacking the entitlement many degree-holders have).

So, while I struggle to feel particularly saddened by the demise of the UK's bloated, exorbitant, unfit-for-purpose university system, there is another stalwart UK institution currently in its death throes, the decline of which I think represents a much more significant and grave cultural threat.

That is:

The call centre.

Yes, you read that correctly... the humble, sometimes hellish, often hated, call centre.

But before we delve into why this really is quite such a catastrophic cultural loss (seriously!), first some more information on why the call centre is very soon to be no more...

It's AI, of course, which has become advanced enough to do the bulk of work that takes place in contact centres.

Call centres will be essentially gone in five years, predicts Piers Linney, founder of Implement AI.

Linney told DailyMail.com: 'Generative AI will increase productivity as human workforces are augmented and technology becomes more capable over time to take on tasks. This means that fewer employees will be needed.

'For example, call centres will be almost entirely automated within five years.'

Call centres becoming fully automated would lead to hundreds of thousands of redundancies, with currently around 812,000 people - 4% of the nation's workforce - employed as agents in these environments.

That in itself would be significant enough, but an even more interesting and alarming issue is to look at who these call-centres are employing.

As a veteran of such environments, I feel reasonably well qualified to comment...

When I first left my hometown and moved to London in my early twenties, with ambitions to pursue a professional writing career, I (like nearly everyone else I knew with such ambitions) ended up, initially, in a large North London call centre.

Situated just off the roundabout on Old Street, and rather handily next to a large Wetherspoons, Pell and Bales (or Hell and Satan, as we all jovially called it) was a national outbound call centre specialising in charity fundraising. They represented all the big names like Oxfam and Action Aid, didn't start shifts until 1pm (good job, with that Wetherspoons next door) and appeared to be staffed exclusively by three types of people:

  1. Antipodean travellers doing their "working holidays" (a reciprocal scheme operated by the Australian and UK governments, allowing young people aged up to 31 to acquire a visa that allows them to live and work in the other country for up to two years);
  2. Professional, if somewhat "resting", actors, who possessed the requisite skills for telephone work of being able to read from a script convincingly, and who liked the work because the flexible shift patterns enabled them to attend auditions (call centres often advertise in Stage magazine for these reasons);
  3. Those with creative aspirations - writers, musicians, artists - who were struggling to get established in their desired fields and needed something to pay the rent in the meantime.

In my case, I wanted to train as a copywriter, but as all such training was unpaid - so-called "internships" - I needed to be able to save up some money to enable me to complete this training.

Similar themes were recurrent throughout everyone I met there: Simon was working there to subsidise gigs with his band; Becky was saving up to go back to college; Sam wanted to do an apprenticeship; and of course there were all the Australians and Kiwis who were earning money to fund the next leg of their travelling tour.

The point was, the work - repetitive and dull as it often was - was readily available, flexible, and enabling large numbers of people to pursue what they really wanted to do in life, in a way that few other industries were.

I remember being in a Facebook group at the time called, 'Creatives Thank God For Call Centres', because the widespread understanding at that time was, if you wanted to pursue a career in a creative field, and you didn't have the family connections to give you a head start (which, alas, I did not), you were going to have to do a significant stint in call centres.

The call centres understood implicitly that these were the kind of people who made up their core staff base, and targeted their recruitment ads accordingly, highlighting their flexible shift patterns and late starts, perfect for those needing to attend interviews and auditions, or play late-night gigs... "The job is challenging but fun and is ideal for students, actors, musicians or anyone who needs to earn money around other commitments" read the recruitment ad (mostly honestly, save for "fun" part).

Pretty unusually for employers, they embraced the fact they weren't their employees' priority in life, and knew to most working there, they were simply a facilitator for something else - and this approach seemed to work well for them, because it meant the workforce remained largely jubilant and enthusiastic, not ground down by the drudgery of what might otherwise have been experienced as a dull, dead-end job.

After two years in that and other call-centres, I had saved up enough to do the copywriting internship I had been aiming for for so long, and - although that didn't exactly end up signalling the beginning of a rewarding and illustrious career (but that's another story) - it nevertheless remained the case that my time in call-centres facilitated something I would otherwise have been completely unable to do: it allowed me to access the type of life I wanted.

Of course, there's other casual labour apart from call-centres, but there are only so many bar and shop jobs to go around, and fewer and fewer as the hospitality and retail sectors continue to dramatically contract.

I only knew one or two people working in bars when I lived in London, and got the impression it was quite competitive and a bit of a closed shop - you seemed to need to "know someone" to get that sort of work, especially if you lacked relevant experience - but I knew so, so many who worked, or had previously worked, in call centres (with their alluring "no experience required!" recruitment ads).

Therefore, to try and imagine my young adulthood without call-centres is to imagine a dramatically different landscape to the point of it being unrecognisable. Most of the young travellers from the Antipodes, Europe, Brazil and South Africa I met wouldn't have been there for a start, as vast swathes of them were employed in some kind of telephone-based customer services role.

Many young graduates and school-leavers who had gone out into the world to seek their fortune, would have promptly had to pack up and go home again, when they couldn't only not find work in their chosen field (a common story), but couldn't even pick up casual labour in the formerly ubiquitous call-centres.

And scores of creatives, needing flexible shift patterns to enable them to act, write, or play, would have had to throw in the towel of their creative pursuits, unable to find that kind of work that would facilitate it.

Not "the end of the world", maybe, but nevertheless, none of the above - a decline in travel, independence, and creativity - can be viewed as a plus.

Even now, where call centres do still exist and employ humans, the landscape has already altered radically, making many of them far less effective facilitators for new opportunities than they were, because so many of them have gone work from home.

When I worked in call centres, doing the job alone from home would have been unthinkable, as one of the biggest draws of the work was how many interesting new people one met, and how that would lead to exciting, sometimes wildly unpredictable, new experiences - and even whole new life paths.

A random person I sat next to in a call centre ended up, years later, linking me up with a great new job; another I ended up sharing a house with; many others became really good friends.

This kind of dynamic culture, and the potential for new connection, that used to proliferate throughout call centres has all gone now, or mostly, with ever more call centres realising how much money they can save by consigning all their employees to working from home. That means it's now not uncommon for people to work for call centres they have never been to, alongside people they have never met, and whom they wouldn't even recognise if they passed in the street (a grim modern model that can have tragic consequences).

So, with the original infrastructure of these environments already largely dismantled, as people toil away alone at home, instead of in bustling buildings alongside future friends, it's not such a huge leap to go fully automated and do away with the human aspect altogether.

But then what happens to those humans, who once would have undertaken these roles? What happens to all those missed opportunities, never-realised dreams, un-lived experiences?

Once call centres have made the transition to being fully AI, no corresponding industry that employs humans is going to suddenly spring up to replace them, and the 812,000 people they currently employ. And I think the impact of this on the national character could conceivably be a lot more profound than the collapse of universities (the industry collapse getting all the media attention).

Call centres have long since enabled young people to: leave their homes and live independently; visit new countries and travel the world; undertake training and study they couldn't have afforded otherwise; pursue acting or music or art and still be able to pay the bills.

I think they've facilitated this for more people and more effectively than universities (with their increasingly useless degrees and ever-spiralling debts) generally have, and therefore, the collapse of the call centre may well be a loss we and future generations will feel far more acutely.

Not just for the young, either. I know a lot of middle-aged people who lost their jobs through Covid, as I'm sure we all do, and it has been particularly hard for the over 50s (who face rampant ageism in recruitment) to get back into work.

Someone I know applied fruitlessly for endless vacancies, joined multiple recruitment agencies (one of which thoughtfully informed him he was too old), sent out CVs to local businesses and got nowhere... but he did manage to get a job in a call centre.

Granted, it was work from home (as they nearly all are now), but it was a job, after 18 months of looking - and this is not an uncommon story. When people are really down on their luck and can't get a job anywhere else... they can almost always get one in a call centre.

So what about when they can't?

Whenever I consider all these issues - industries declining, opportunities dwindling, more and more people working from home - I feel a literal, visceral sense of our lives being shrunk.

With exponential speed, more and more autonomy and possibility is being taken away from us. Jobs not only offer autonomy by giving us the capacity to earn money, but they have traditionally offered possibility, beyond the official remit of the job, by getting us out into the world and meeting a whole host of interesting characters we never would otherwise have encountered.

This matters on a fundamental level, as wealthy and ambitious families have aways understood: after all, why do well-off families send their children to private schools? Not because the standard of the education is phenomenally better: it's because of the invaluable connections they know their children will make, connections that will go on to augment their lives in multiple dynamic ways for decades to come.

Hence the saying, "it's not what you know, but who you know", and this goes for the whole life cycle, particularly when getting established as a young adult. Therefore, going out into the workplace and meeting all sorts of new people can give those from less affluent backgrounds a chance to start making the kind of life-enhancing connections their more privileged counterparts were able to make at school.

But what if all those jobs become work from home... and then, in a few years, don't exist at all?

The implications are very severe, and are corralling more and more of us towards the overlords' desired future where we have become "indoor humans" - accustomed to living our entire lives alone inside online.

In reality, working from home is, for most people, only meant as a transitional period whilst AI gets up to speed in taking over their industry (because, realistically, if a job can be done alone at home online, sooner or later, it can be done by AI).

What the ruling classes want for most of us is, not to be independent through waged work, even home work - but to be completely and utterly dependent on them, sustained by UBI.

When beginning this article, readers could be forgiven for scepticism at my dismay at the decline of the call centre.

But that kind of work is so dreary and dull, people might think (and they would be right).

Surely it's better to hand it over to robots who don't get bored, liberating human beings to pursue more fulfilling activities?

That's the palatable packaging we are given regarding UBI - that, freed from the drudgery of dull jobs, human beings will finally be able to achieve their full creative potential.

Yet my experience is the exact opposite: that it is, in fact, the dull jobs that inspire the optimising of potential, because they provide a catalyst to want to make more of life; they present opportunities to make connections that can move one rapidly forward; and they offer the potential to make more money, the lifeblood of fuelling many successful creative endeavours.

UBI offers none of this. It will be a set, static figure that we cannot increase by doing extra shifts. It will not provide context or culture or connection with others. It will, inevitably, not be enough to enable us to do the things we really want to do, but enough to just get by, therefore draining the imperative, for most, to aim for something more (and then, of course, there's all the inevitably sinister "conditions" UBI will increasingly come with - as I always like to remind its advocates, that U stands for 'universal', not 'unconditional').

The move towards working from home has been bad (as I have detailed in an earlier article). But the next planned move, to not working from home, will be catastrophic.

I think we're on the precipice of a cultural cataclysm that too few are paying attention to, as these changes haven't directly affected them yet - but what is happening is, in reality, already affecting all of us in the way it is so profoundly reshaping our society. Already, what was normal and unremarkable 15 years ago - to get a reasonably paying job outside of your home with no concern a robot would steal your job - is becoming harder and harder to access now.

The collapse of the call centre may seem an improbable choice as a symbolic totem for the irrevocable decline of Western civilisation.

But I do sincerely think (and this is quite the staggering indictment) that it may be more significant than the rise of the green-haired non-binary wokerati.

Ultimately, these people don't have any real power, other than that which is bestowed on them by the establishment (and that could change on a whim, as indeed, I think it will). But the ability to work and earn and shape your own destiny does bestow upon a person real power - and that is why it has been so brutally targeted for extinction.

It may be too late to save the nation's call centres (even the ones so close to Wetherspoons, alas: Pell and Bales, my former employer, collapsed in 2016). But it's not too late to reclaim the national narrative and staunchly resist this sinister reshaping of reality. We can reject AI "operatives", boycott self-checkouts, refuse to transact solely online and insist on dealing with a person.

The stakes are now far beyond simply bringing in money. It's not too much of a stretch to say what is at stake now is the very nature of being human itself: the one thing AI, no matter how advanced, will never be able to successfully usurp.

Working from home was sold to us on the premise of "staying safe". UBI claims to be about "staying solvent". But the real point, as it has always been, is to stay human.

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