The last few weeks have been a real throwback: a large national institution, part of the social fabric of our nation, has been lambasted in the press for poor management and failing to adapt to the realities of the digital age. Its workforce, one of the last still heavily unionised, has been attacked for pretty much the same sins. Postal workers have been on strike with little or no signs of agreement. But in the last couple of days, sense appears to have prevailed, at least for now.
As Chris Barraclough wrote, what bothers me most were comments in the media that effectively sneered…
“we don’t really need the post these days, do we? I do everything on my Blackberry…” the subtext being “do we really have to subsidise the post for Ethel Miggins living in rural Cumbria?” (Yes, you do).
The mail service in the UK is Universal, and that’s not something to be taken lightly: very few things are any more. 26m households have a letterbox of some form, more than have a TV or a phone.
Post connects people in a way email or twitter can’t. Its predicted demise will impact most on the people least able to use or afford the internet – the old or very young, the isolated, the poor. ONS statistics for 2009 indicate 64% of the over 65s claim to have never used the internet. 30% of UK households (nearly 8 million) don’t have internet access. My daughters squeal with excitement if they get anything in the post.
Crucially, it’s the important things that get put ‘into writing’; official documents, Christmas / Birthday / Mothers’ Day cards, presents, thankyou notes… All these are things that show ‘we’re thinking of you even if we can’t be with you’.
Significantly, ‘snail mail’ requires effort. We have to buy paper, a card, an envelope, stamps. We write a personal message, wrap the present, we have to go to the post box. Perhaps this required effort is the reason we (only) use the post for ‘special’ occasions. Our personal investment is much more important than a dashed-off, disposable email or text message.
And for the recipient, post can be truly tangible, keepable and have historical value. We keep cards and letters. We print ‘important’ emails. Because if it means something, we like to have a copy. Letters, diaries, photos are the lifeblood of personal and family memories, the everyday history of us all.
It’s in this context that the mail service provides a lifeline for many people. On a commercial level, Direct Mail still delivers high quality customers and donors for many brands and charities, without even thinking of the vast new market for online rentals and purchases. Posties are a symbol of and part of the fabric of our communities. Many isolated or single elderly people may only see one person each day – their postie. We might not feel it’s very crucial, but then we really notice when the post is late or delayed.
The London Review of Books recently published an excellent article written by a postal worker. It lays out the dehumanising impact of ever-creeping business change – new shifts or rounds, new practices, part-time workers. It’s a sorry tale of a failure to recognise the broader societal values the postal service provides to us all. Shareholder Value seems to hold the dominant card, yet “Granny Smith” needs the services far more than any corporate body, who could (and probably will) transfer its business to TNT or a.n.other service.
It may well be that the recent strikes are the last throes of a dying industry and out-moded working practices, but we would all be poorer without it.