Shopping at our local supermarket, I choose the checkout queue leading to the nice lady with the fair hair and glasses who always chats. She’s brisk and efficient, but I shop for six, so even at speed the checkout process is long enough for us to have a good conversation.
Today she asks me if I know about the Quick Check arrangements (self checkout). She doesn’t make it sound as though she’s pitching something, she makes it sound as though it’s just popped into her mind while she noticed me queuing. She delivers all the lines meticulously. I’ve heard the pitch before, so I know what it covers when the checkout humanoid is on autopilot. But today I’m having the talk from someone who is a real person, having a real human interaction. It’s nice, even though it’s technically still a spiel. It’s why I joined her checkout queue.
So she asks me whether I’ll take up Quick Check, and I explain that I don’t plan to. I say that I like to speak to real people at the checkout; that conversation is important to me. That I like it when people are pleasant, slow down a bit, find time for a chat.
I also tell her that when people are struggling to find work that pays enough to keep a roof over their head and to raise their families, I try hard not to do things that might put people out of work; that if the supermarket outsources its work for me to do, for free, then jobs that pay will disappear.
I tell her that I wouldn’t feel so worried about that if people who are out of work weren’t blamed and criticised and treated as though they are out of work through laziness rather than a dearth of jobs.
I tell her that when i was a child I imagined our high-tech, automated future would free us from much work, but that we would share this good fortune by all doing less and all having more leisure. I say I didn’t expect people to be treated as scroungers and idlers just because the world has changed.
She tells me about the end of her first marriage; about raising her children on her own; about the pressure she’s been put under by the DWP (and its predecessors) to find work, any work, however incompatible with her parenting responsibilities. She tells me how ridiculous and unhelpful and harmful that was.
We agree that raising our children well is hard work and a worthy job in itself, and if you’re doing it alone it’s reasonable to be supported while you’re doing it. That being a good enough parent is more worthwhile and creates more value in the world than many paid jobs do.
She tells me about how she ‘found her feet’ when her children were older, how good her life is now. She tells me how she never forgets what it used to be like, and how people who have not lived her kind of life find it really hard to understand what it’s like.
We agree that it would be a better world if people were valued for all that they do and are, and not just for what they do under the label “paid employment” and we agree that it would be a better world if we stopped using language that stigmatises, criticises and blames people who are not like us.
All my shopping is packed and I have paid, so we bring our conversation to a close by agreeing that until that better world exists, it’s a sensible political position for me to decide that I won’t use Quick Check or its equivalents anywhere, in case it means there are fewer jobs to go round. And then we both say “It was really nice talking to you.”
Behind me, the next customer in the queue is smiling, and the check out lady doesn’t say “Sorry to keep you waiting”. The next customer is in that queue for a reason too.