Headline news this week: Canada Post moves to end home delivery.
End home delivery? For me, both as a writer, a lay historian, and growing up in an era where letters were important for communication, business, family and for art, that’s just crazy. I mean really, seriously, way-more-insane-than-the-OLG crazy. But, in an age of declining letter writing – where the tyranny of the Twitterverse is reducing our literary skills to hashtags and cryptic abbreviations- it may be inevitable.*
Charlie Gillis wrote in MacLean’s wrote about the accelerating slide to digital communication back in March, outlining both the challenges the postal service faces and some options for its future:
Robert Campbell, the author of a 2002 book on fixing postal services, led the review panel that recommended against the privatization of Canada Post. He says he suggested the reprieve, not as a permanent state of affairs, but as a temporary measure allowing the postal service to restructure to a new world of competition. “You’ve got what is basically a smokestack industry here that’s trying to modernize,” says Campbell, currently the president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. “It has huge legacy costs.”
Chief among its burdens: a $4-billion pension liability owed to current and retired employees that could hobble it in the face of leaner, private-sector competitors. Ottawa owes Canada Post the time—and possibly the financial assistance—to deal with that overhead before opening the field to its rivals, Campbell argues.
Well, Canada Post has shaken the tree of its own accord, sans the intervention of Ottawa (which, given the current government and its inability to deal with the scandals in the Senate or the PMO, might be just as well).
And on top of that seismic shift, CP will dramatically increase the cost of postage. So were they thinking, we’re already losing money: let’s find another way to discourage users!
(Okay, to be fair, CP should have raised the price quite some time ago. This history of annual one-two cent increases was never a good business model given Canada’s large distances and small populations. And given the value of the penny even when it was in circulation, a jump of five cents would hardly have mattered. But until 2011, CP was making money, so maybe it never occurred to them to squirrel away a little extra for the lean years.)
But what is happening to letter writing?
When I browse my book shelves I see collections of letters to and from some of the greats of history: Darwin, Einstein, Dickens, Wilde. I don’t imagine there will be many future books of great emails, great Facebook posts, or great tweets. Writing a letter takes thought, takes care, is an emotional and personal investment. Writing on social media is generally instant, immediate, thoughtless; a reflex, a reaction, not a considered act.
Blogs, of course, may sometimes be considered the exception – although counter-argument might be made that many blogs are just lengthier versions of the tweet, and others are simply a platform for a more vituperative – but similarly reactive – anger than a FB post. But even a blog does not involve the same sort of contemplative act that handwriting entails, simply because the technology allows us to revise and rewrite in a way that the handwritten word does not.
(Handwriting’s demise is really another topic, which I started on about months ago and now have to resuscitate that draft post to include this week’s news. On a personal note: although I blog and enjoy digital media, I also keep handwritten notebooks. Sadly, I too share the guilt in the decline of letter writing.)
Blogger Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn wrote,
Letter-writing and kindred practices that involve at least a minimal degree of contemplation, even if it is only the momentary breath before folding, sealing, stamping, addressing, and mailing a real letter, can remind someone of nothing less than the existence and importance of the inner life. They are emanations, indications, signs of an inner existence that is paradoxically the only pathway to any real connection with another person… What if practices like letter-writing are not just signs and reminders that the inner life is real, but are preconditions for it, the very materials and means from which the inner life is forged in the first place? Or, barring that, what if they tend to produce interiority of a particular kind, nature, or quality some, if not all, of us cannot dispense with?
Social media involves a different sort of communication, even a different sort of thinking than letter writing. It also encourages brevity over lengthy narrative (something I resist, as you can tell).
The Express tells us that the UK’s Royal Mail is suffering similar decline, with people receiving an average of one letter per month. But it wasn’t always thus:
Vivien Leigh, who died in 1967, was a prolific correspondent.
Her diaries and some 7,500 letters have just been acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum including gossipy love notes between her and Laurence Olivier and letters to Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles and Arthur Miller.
Sadly there won’t be many more archives such as this.
Sad, indeed. Future historians will be deprived of the treasure trove of letters that often provide them the basis of their research:
Said history professor Jeffrey Nathan Wasserstrom of the University of California, Irvine: “There are indeed many ways that a decline in letter-writing will affect future historians, as many people in my profession have certainly benefited from the insights that written missives provide into how people of the past thought and felt.”
What sort of legacy will electronic posters and tweeters leave for posterity? Thin gruel, as John Harris warned in The Guardian, in 2007:
If the letter really is fading fast, now might be a good time to chew over what we are about to lose. Out will go the epistolary novel. What will happen to righteous postal missives sent at the suggestion of Amnesty International, or angry screeds mailed to your MP? Whither old-school fanmail? Perhaps most importantly, what could ever replace the soppy wonderment of the old-fashioned love letter? These thoughts underline why the practice of letter-writing may turn out to be a little more resilient than the figures suggest. Somewhat surprisingly, we are apparently spending more on pens and stationery, so all may not be lost.
Newsweek called the decline of letter writing a, “a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not.”
…where would Western civilization be without letters? For starters we wouldn’t have most of the New Testament—whatever you may think of St. Paul, he was indisputably a tireless letter writer. By the 18th century, letter writing was so commonplace that one of the first prose narratives to be considered a novel, Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela,” was composed entirely of letters of a daughter to her parents, and the epistolary method lent that novel what realism it possessed. More contemporaneously, look to popular song for an index of just how commonplace letter writing was in our culture as late as a generation ago (“A Soldier’s Last Letter,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “P.S. I Love You”).
In the US, the volume seems to have dwindled to less than a trickle: about one personal letter every two months. NBC News told us back in 2011 that the US Postal Service was facing an $8 billion loss:
Last year the typical home received a personal letter about every seven weeks, according to the annual survey done by the post office. As recently as 1987 it was once every two weeks. That doesn’t include greeting cards or invitations.
It’s very different from the nation’s earlier days. When Benjamin Franklin was in charge of the mail, letters bound far-flung Americans together.***
By 2012, that had doubled to a $16 billion loss. In response, the US Postal Service cut Saturday delivery for first class mail (although it continues parcel service). CNN tells us the USPS,
…plans to cut 150,000 workers through 2015, reduce existing staffers’ work hours and hike the price on first-class stamps by one cent to 46 cents.
The USPS seems to have had a small remission this year, thanks to a hefty increase in parcel rates, but the Washington Post tells us it is still $40 billion in debt (in great part because the USPS has a mandatory payment every year to the US government).
Looking at this from a global perspective, Canada Post’s announcement shouldn’t surprise anyone. By 2019, home mail delivery will be just a memory, like the ice man, the milk man and the bread man (all of which I have known, by the way; the ice deliveries were at the cottage, though, not in the city).
But it’s not a consumer-friendly solution nor is it without serious challenges.
The new postal “service” will be a drop off to a community mailbox instead of your front door. Those boxes are already common and frequent targets for vandalism and thieves, it turns out. In some communities (Langley, BC for example), mail theft from common boxes is rampant. This doesn’t bode well. (FYI about a third of CP’s current mail deliveries are to households; the rest to businesses, community boxes, apartment or condo lobbies).
Canada Post already knows about the problem and has taken steps to deal with it, as this report suggests. However, the report also notes:
Canada Post delivered 11 billion pieces of mail last year. Approximately 10,000 of those pieces were
reported stolen. However, based on the damage inflicted to the company’s delivery receptacles, the
company knows that more mail is stolen than is actually reported. The fact that the mail is delivered
securely most of the time does not excuse the times when it does go missing.
Postal home delivery is the earmark of a civilization arrived at modernity. Mail as an organized, government-run system itself dates back about 2,500 years, attributed by Xenophon to Cyrus the Great. But it was under the organization of the Romans that a public mail system – cursus publicus – that mail was firmly established as integral to the operations of both culture and government.
Canada Post was created in 1867, although the first post office opened in Halifax in 1753. Here’s a bit of historical trivia: Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the US, opened it.
Door to door postal service in Canada actually started in 1874, according to a history in the Ottawa Citizen. Under this new plan, door-to-door delivery will be replaced by community “superboxes” – the same sort that new subdivisions have suffered with for decades.
Here’s a bit of information about the volume of mail and costs from the CBC:
Canada Post serves 15.1 million addresses, but only one-third of Canadians (about five million homes) get their mail delivered to their door. Everyone else picks it up from community, apartment or rural-lot-line mailboxes.
It costs Canada Post an average of about $168 per address annually to operate the mail system. Here’s a breakdown:
- Door to door (one-third of Canadians) – $283 per address
- Centralized point, such as an apartment lobby lock box (one quarter of Canadians) – $127 per address
- Group/community mailbox/kiosk (one quarter) – $108 per address
- Delivery facility such as a postal box (12 per cent) – $59 per address
- Rural mailbox (five per cent of Canadians) – $179 per address
An April report by the Conference Board of Canada said almost half of all Canadian households send no more than two pieces of mail each month.
In 2006, Canada Post delivered about five billion pieces of domestic letter mail. But by 2012, that volume had dropped to around four billion, with 30 per cent of that decline occurring in 2012 alone. From 2011 to 2012, the service handled 255 million fewer pieces of mail.
According to the CBC,
Canada Post recorded profits for 16 consecutive years until 2011. It has reported losses for nine consecutive quarters since then.
Revenue in 2012 fell 1.9 per cent to $1.7 billion from $1.8 billion in 2011. That came after a 25-day labour disruption and a pay equity court settlement, which were estimated to cost the corporation a total of around $350 million.
In the first three quarters of 2013, revenue dropped $20 million compared to the same time frame the previous year.
The Conference Board of Canada’s April report said Canada Post was on track to lose $1 billion a year by 2020. It estimated that cutting door-to-door delivery could reduce the losses by more than half, and moving to alternate-day delivery could also save hundreds of millions of dollars.
Even boosting mail costs by 10 per cent a year starting in 2014 would still leave an operating loss of more than $600 million by 2020, the Conference Board report said.
The biggest economic hit will be in lost jobs: an estimated 6,000-8,000 postal workers will lose theirs ( CUPW represents 54,000 employees). The Star tells us:
Between 6,000 and 8,000 jobs will be eliminated over the next five years through attrition. Nearly 15,000 employees are expected to retire or leave in a company with an average age of 48.
I’m not sure if the Star means CP has a current average age of 48, or the exiting workers will have that average age. Nor does it explain the math clearly: is the 6-8,000 part of the 15,000 or in addition to it? Either way, losing that many good jobs doesn’t bode well for the economy, either.
Not surprisingly, the uber-right QMI agency loves the idea. Canada Post, a crown corporation and monopoly (as are most nations’ postal services), offends their notion of corporate control of national services:
…the move will be opposed, too, by leftists who just love big government — including postal monopolies… But if Canada Post does not carry through with the changes it proposed this week, then taxpayers will simply end up subsidizing the Crown corporation’s growing mega-losses. Or, in other words, taxpayers will be forced to subsidize high-paid, public-sector workers whose work load is rapidly disappearing and bankroll the mailing costs of the rapidly declining number of consumers who still use the mail… Parliament should now take away Canada Post’s monopoly over first-class mail, so those who might still want door-to-door delivery can pay a private deliverer a fee for the privilege.
Blather and claptrap, as expected from the Sun’s right-wing ideologues, always looking for ways to destabilize and eliminate the social networks of the state, and privatize everything. No mention of – or concern for – how it will affect seniors, or persons with disabilities inconvenienced by having to get to a superbox (and of the litter these boxes generate from junk mail dumped around them at so many of these sites – see photo), or how CP will ensure the security and safety of our mail in these boxes.
Newsweek reminds us how important letter writing is to ourselves:
Writing a lot of letters will not turn you into Lincoln or Shakespeare, but if you do it enough, you begin to put your essential self on paper whether you mean to or not. No other form of communication yet invented seems to encourage or support that revelatory intimacy.
Is the internet to blame? Partially, but it can’t shoulder all of it. Letter writing was what people did in their spare time before the electronic age (i.e. the Victorian Age). It started to decline with the arrival of the telegraph, then accelerated with the telephone. Then came radio and TV to soak up people’s attention and occupy their time. VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray all contribute to our passive activities; iPods, MP3 players, mobile device, tablets, too. The Net really just added the final nail in the coffin.
But it’s still a sad day, one of those moments in history that stand out, to know that everyone of us alive in Canada today will be able to say in five more years, I remember when… and home mail delivery will be like the manual typewriter or the player piano; a quaint artifact of some bygone era we regale incredulous children and grandchildren with.
* It may be no wonder that the younger generation has moved away from writing letters: they are not trained or skilled in communicating in more than 140 characters, in using whole sentences with adjectives and verbs, broken into coherent paragraphs. Writing a letter that encompasses pages of text must appear a daunting task to someone grown up in the dumbing-us-down social media era. And handwritten letters? Gawds forbid… The Guardian story has these data from a UK study in 2005:
To truly grasp the decline of letter-writing, it’s most instructive to look at surveys of the young. Those upstanding parents who still insist on thank-you letters may well be a dying breed: two years ago, a poll carried out by the Department for Education found that a third of 16- to 19-year-old girls had never written a letter, while among boys, the figure was over a half.
What, not even letters to Santa? Will kids be forced to email Santa? or post on Santa’s Facebook page?
** Note this quote from a 2011 report:
…it’s worth asking whether the union’s demand for a 12% wage increase over four years is an outlandish one — or whether Canada Post’s demand for a 22% cut for new workers is any less outlandish. To do so, I suggest looking at the very top: executive compensation.
It’s actually surprisingly difficult to find out what a Crown corporation CEO gets paid, and how that changes over time. (Unsurprisingly, the Treasury Board is not particularly interested in publishing this information in a highly visible format.) Annual salary increases are estimated by an HR group known as the Stephenson Committee. In 2007 (during the first year of Canada Post’s now expired collective agreement), it was $455,000 per year plus a 25% bonus. By 2010, the top CEO pay had ballooned up to $497,100 plus 33% in bonuses.
*** The article also added a salient note about how social media is affecting our personal lives:
…Aaron Sachs, a professor of American Studies and History at Cornell University, said, “One of the ironies for me is that everyone talks about electronic media bringing people closer together, and I think this is a way we wind up more separate. We don’t have the intimacy that we have when we go to the attic and read grandma’s letters.”
“Part of the reason I like being a historian is the sensory experience we have when dealing with old documents” and letters, he said. “Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I say I read other people’s mail.”
“Handwriting is an aspect of people’s identity,” he added. “Back in the day, when you wrote a letter it was to that one person, so people said very intimate things.” Today with things like Facebook being more public people may not say as much, he said. And while some people are open in what they email, “it’s a very different kind of sharing.”