I’m reading this quick little book on geopolitics and trends in political economy called “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” Highly recommended, if you’re into that kind of thing and want a clearer view of how a world that seems a little topsy-turvy right now got that way.
There’s a discussion in the book about job and income growth in the West.
Basically, since the Great Recession, pretty much all job growth has been in the “informal job market” – what you probably know as the gig economy. Think Uber driver, freelancer with Amazon Mechanical Turk or Freelancer.com, Airbnb rental coordinator…that kind of thing. “Formal employment” – typically a job with a single company, set pay and benefits, and fairly regular hours – has “shrunk by 0.1 per cent a year since the 2008 financial meltdown.”
Referencing a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, The Retreat of Western Liberalism says (emphasis mine, slightly reformatted for easier online readability):
What McKinsey forecasts for the future of independent work is both revealing and disturbing. By their estimates, each Western household could save an average of 3.2 hours a day by outsourcing work online to odd-jobbers: driving the children to school, running errands, doing the shopping, cooking, laundry and looking after the pets. In total, this would create seven million new jobs.
McKinsey calculates that there is $100 billion of unpaid household work that should be outsourced, which would take up twelve billion hours of work time. It takes two seconds to figure out this would pay just over $8 an hour – considerably below the minimum wage in most of the West. Such a shift would be great for those who could afford it. But it is hardly an inspiring vision of the future of digital-enabled work.
Presumably in this vision of the future, paying someone else to take care of your dog frees up time to work more at your slightly higher paying gig job running errands for someone who does freelance work for slightly more than you make.
It’s like that story about the old woman who tells the cosmologist that the Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle.
“But Ma’am,” asks the cosmologist, “what is that turtle standing on?”
“He is standing right on the back of a larger turtle, of course!” says the old woman.
“And what is this second turtle standing on?” persists the cosmologist.
“Oh, young man you are very clever, but it’s turtles all the way down!”
Oh, you’re very clever, young one, but it’ll be gig economy jobs, all the way down.
I’m practicing more active reading, which means that when I read books like The Retreat of Western Liberalism, I take very brief summary notes of the key concept or concepts on each page before moving on. My summary note for page 65, where the above referenced quote on outsourcing is to be found, looks like this:
“65. Western homes could save 3.2 hr/day by outsourcing FUCKING LIFE to gig econ.”
I understand that there are plenty of people who have no interest in any of the traditional domestic skills. Hell, I’m friends with people who would positively thrive as international digital nomads. No problem with any of that. You do you.
But my public persona is basically cheerleader for things like cooking and gardening and canning. I choose to homeschool my kids. I’m obviously not a neutral observer on the subject of domestic work, and I find the stated arguments in this position rather depressing: that unpaid household work should be outsourced, and that such outsourcing would be great for anyone who can afford it.
Domestic work – from the first haunch of beast roasted over the fire to the first ashes swept out of the cave – clearly has some intrinsic value because it’s foundational to our long human history. Family, tribe, culture, home and human self-domestication are all tightly wound to the history of domestic chores. It’s just not immediately clear to me that the full complexity of that value is captured in an $8 an hour price tag.
The underlying assumption in these arguments is that, because work in the domestic sphere has historically had very little economic value, it follows that it has very little total value within the context of home, family, society and beyond, and therefore we should all be very eager to turn that work over to anyone else who will do it. There are lots of activities that have no economic advantage but still have tremendous value, especially within the framework of a home and family. Reading to my kids doesn’t pay, not one damned dime. But it’s tremendously valuable. Going for a walk certainly isn’t billable, but time spent on a walk is hardly wasted.
I suppose the counterpoint is: hey, I just want to outsource laundry and cleaning so I have time to go for a walk and read to my kids. Hard to argue with that. I’m torn on this issue myself!
I see a very rough parallel in Social Media, which effectively turned previously non-monetized activities into a tidy profit-making machine. Little personal moments of you, say, sitting down to brunch with a friend or taking your dog to the park or getting pissed off at a political candidate used to just be moments…just your life, with no extrinsic economic value. Just you. Maybe you and your dog.
Enter Social Media and now all those little personal little moments do have an economic value. #SundayBrunch, #Omelete, #ChocolateLab, #DogSelfie, #GiantMeteor2016, #FakeNews transforms moments of your life into content. A massive user-generated content stream (your life moments, plus hers, and his, and theirs, all bundled together) allows Facebook etc. to sell ads that target your eyeballs. And because Facebook knows everything about you, those ads are very effectively targeted. In fact, your eyeballs were worth $15.98 to Facebook in 2016.
That’s great for Facebook (or Instagram, or whatever the kids are using these day). Maybe not necessarily so great for you. Excessive use of social media actually makes us less social, has a damaging impact on mental health, and contributes to an echo chamber environment that fractures shared reality into ideological cesspits.
What’s excessive? I can’t really answer that. But users spend an average of 50 minutes each day on Facebook’s social media properties (Facebook proper, Instagram, and Messenger – WhatsApp is tallied separately). “That means more than one-sixteenth of the average user’s waking time is spent on Facebook,” according to the New York Times.
But hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
To run this social media analogy out, further outsourcing the minor domestica of life that was previously mostly insourced certainly has advantages, but might there be some knock-on consequences we can’t yet predict? Increased class and income division, increasing political tension over cheap labor, increased potential for labor exploitation, decreased family unity, a consumption-treadmill that’s even harder to exit, and (paradoxically) additional life complexity all strike me as possible drawbacks.
I don’t know. I could be wrong. I remember having a conversation with an Indian friend ages ago. He was explaining that the ethic in India is much more about giving small “gig” or service jobs to people whenever you can, because the population is large, labor is inexpensive, and the class and wealth divides are dramatic. So culturally it would seem rude to DIY something if you were well off enough that you could afford to pay someone else to do the job for you. That would be like hoarding. Therefore the pro-social action is actually to hire out as many tasks as you can afford to.
Perhaps my concerns about increased domestic outsourcing are really just a cover for a deeper fear that it’s wage stagnation turtles all the way down for the US middle class.
In any event, I’m not convinced that maximizing the share of a person’s life that falls within the purview of formal financial exchanges is necessarily a good thing. What’s next? Monetize your family? Maybe rent your kid a fake dad?
Oh wait, that’s actually already happening.
I’d love to know your thoughts. Everyone gets tired of folding laundry and doing dishes sometimes. If you could outsource all the domestica of your life, would you?2
This quote comes to mind:
“In the name of economy, of time or capital, we have outsourced to others those key activities that define the day-to-day. Don’t want to make lunch? Buy a Lunchable. Don’t want to help your kids with algebra? Hire a tutor. But what is life if not the day-to-day? Sunsets in Nicaragua and family vacations in the Canadian Rockies are spectacular, but if that’s what we’re waiting around for, what is the point of a Wednesday evening? The tasks we have decided to label mundane – as tasks! – are that which accumulate into relationships and memories. Cooking dinner or helping your kids with homework.”
(– Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food by Megan Kimble)
I really do value these everyday tasks and think it’s important that our kids see us doing them/do them with us even though we could potentially outsource them…but then again I am a stay-at-home mom and actually have time to do these things. If I came home from work at 5 or 6 and barely had time to see my kids before bedtime, I would probably think differently about it. :/
Deborah Lein says
Okay, first of all: that “rent a dad” article was the single creepiest piece of nonfiction I have read in some time. (Which is saying something these days.) And quite possibly the saddest. Has it really come to this? (Also: the movie pretty much writes itself, doesn’t it?)
Really, really interesting topic. I’ve thought a lot about this myself. I don’t want to outsource all of the domestica, all the time (though there are times when I would definitely like a breather!). If I could outsource hand-washing dishes all the time, and look myself in the mirror, I would do so. I would literally rather clean toilets than hand-wash dishes; it makes me insane. (Every single day.)
But the larger point about the gig economy and your anecdote from India — that’s tough. First, I’m hearing kind of a subtext in your post that laments that domestic work is not respected. You’re right, and I agree. Have you ever read “Home Comforts” by Cheryl Mendelssohn? It’s mostly an incredibly detailed housekeeping how-to book, but the first few chapters are an eloquent treatise on the history of domestic chores and their standing (or modern lack thereof) as both respectable and respected work. She feels — as a lawyer and an academic and a feminist — that this change in attitude is a loss to both society and to individuals. Definitely worth a read, you’d love lots of it.
The part where I can really relate to your story from India is about snow shovelling, which is a significant chore in Minnesota. I own a snow shovel. I own a snowblower. I am reasonably fit. But I hire a neighbor to do it, because he is mentally disabled and is trying to piece together income and equally important, he deserves the dignity of paid work that he can do extremely well. Every year I revisit this decision (can I really afford this? shouldn’t I be doing it myself?) and every year I decide to hire Lawrence because he needs the work and the respect. He is not cheap. And there is no reason he should be; he does a fabulous job.
I myself am a freelancer, so part of the gig economy already. I too have been watching more jobs become automated out of existence (it’s not just factory workers, it’s office workers too!) and have seen more and more people join the gig economy and have been thinking a lot about whether that’s just the nature of work in the 21st century and about how incredibly precarious that is. If the folks that can afford it are hiring everything out, what happens when THEIR job gets automated away (or whatever)? They immediately in-source everything back and fire the 14 people who depended on those small gigs. And yet if they never outsourced to begin with, is there even enough work to go round for those 14 people (and millions of others)? This is a very real concern for academics who study the nature of work: the possibility that there literally will not be enough (paid) work to go around. And what the heck do we do then?
No answers, but glad you’re thinking about this too. It matters.
“No answers, but glad you’re thinking about this too. It matters.” My thoughts exactly. We need to think about this and talk about it and get as many perspectives out there as possible then start chewing them over. I found your take really interesting, Deborah.
Deborah Lein says
Yours too, Victoria! Your last sentence is exactly the right question.
This is where a Basic Income could transform how we think about earning income. Insourcing all those tasks and getting an income that frees us up to do the important things for our homes and families and then creative and important thing for society.
I love Home Comforts! The first few chapters were especially thought-provoking. I don’t ever see it mentioned anywhere, neat to know someone else has read it :).
Home Comforts is my bible of housekeeping. I have two copies, in case I spill something on one, I guess. I love the stories about the Italian grandmother and the British (?) grandmother, how they had very different ways of doing things, but both were very good at keeping house.
A plilesngay rational answer. Good to hear from you.
Nicole A. says
That article was waaaay too creepy. It seems like something out of a dystopian sci-fi anime…but it’s real.
I think I’m going to go have nightmares about this now…
I think about these things every single day and I think about them in the terms you’ve used here. What the broader economic implications are as well as what pleasure they might bring. I live in a country (Argentina) where paid domestic employees are a widespread consumer item among the middle class, but I have a huge problem with the fact that my own and my partner’s “liberation” from undesired domestic tasks would be predicated on exploiting another woman (and if I paid market rates, it would be exploitation). Payment aside (because you could always pay more), I think we can’t get away from the fact that this kind of work is somehow “different” (indeed, in Argentina it is covered by an entirely different law to the one that covers most labor relations). I mean, it takes place in a private sphere, in isolation, and employer-employee relations are usually governed by often severe inequality (social class, income levels, gender, nationality or race) and are usually unregulated/informal. But then, while I love many aspects of domestic life, there is part of me that knows that someone else taking care of some of the heavy cleaning would not only free up time for work and my kids, it would probably vastly improve my relationship with them (because I wouldn’t always be dashing from one task to another and stressed… and I don’t have particularly high cleaning standards, but we have to eat and have clean clothes every so often). I can’t muddle it out either so for now I am a ratty do-it-all. But I’m curious to hear what other people have to say, Where is the boundary between the outsourceable and the not outsourceable and what are the conditions that would make outsourcing jobs more acceptable?
That’s an interesting perspective from India, that if you have the money, you should hire others to do things as a way to share your wealth. It reminds me of what a friend told be about recycling in India, that you just put your unwanted materials/garbage out on the curb because the paper guy will come by and take all the paper, and the tin man (heh, not that tin man) will come and take the cans, and basically everything gets broken down and carried away by people harvesting the value.
OK, it can’t work for used disposable diapers, but *that* reminds me of a story from a second generation Indian-American; when she was pregnant with her first child her grandmother said “You’re not going to use those paper diaper things, are you? That’s disgusting!” For her grandmother, the proper way to keep a baby clean is to use elimination communication, which is a thing that a few American moms do. But I digress.
I am a woman who hires another woman to come to my house every other week and clean. I’m a pediatrician, I work full time and I’m the primary breadwinner for my family. Nevertheless, the state of my house still seems to be a reflection on me, and not my husband. Or, you could say that I can’t tolerate the level of not-clean that my husband can tolerate. Whatever, I can’t do it all. I pay Margaret $105 for what’s usually about 3 hours work. I’m generally quite busy “pre-cleaning” to get ready for her arrival – she makes things clean, not tidy – and I keep working through most of the time she is in our house. For me, it is money well spent. It still bothers me.
One of the things that bothers me most is the example it’s setting for my daughters. I wonder sometimes if they will never learn to clean a bathroom, and I can see pretty clearly they’re not good at cleaning their rooms. (Margaret never cleans their rooms – they are just messy.) I am a bad mom in this respect. On the other hand, they are both very bright and the older one is a straight A student. Who knows, maybe by the time they are out of my house there will be bathroom cleaning robots!
I’d gladly outsource certain kinds of cleaning (mainly the bathroom) but mostly I enjoy it. Or, even if I don’t, it serves as a good reason to get up and move around and it breaks up the day.
Need to start outsourcing to my kids!
Right ON with this post. The problem with outsourcing life is that if too many of us do it, we forget how to take care of ourselves, and we are likely to need that capacity some day. I’ve seen this in microcosm in my own life; My ex-husband was not handy, so I learned how to do a whole bunch of handy stuff. Knowing how to do each thing allowed me to learn quickly how to do the next thing. Like, learning to clear the trap under the sink made it easier for me to learn how to replace the garbage disposal. However, for the last 12 years I’ve been married to someone who IS handy, so I outsource all those jobs I used to do to him. It’s convenient, and a good division of labor, but I no longer remember how to do that stuff, and worse, I no longer feel completely capable of it; I just wait for him to get home.
I also think that even without the turtle effect, the underlying concept is that some people should not do domestic chores because they can make more money doing work for someone else, who then makes more money on the labor. Sorry, my life is more valuable than the dollar value working for someone else puts on me.
I would love my husband to outsource a few of the handy man things he does around the house because he likes to do it all (there’s a YouTube video for just about anything if you want to learn) and so he does it. Also, he might be stingy with money. 😉
But I see your point in a lot of this. I think there is a market for *some* things that would be beneficial to be outsourced but all of it? I see this rapidly turning into pre-Industrial Revolution class systems again.
Sue Kusch says
Interesting post. My first thought was that this is a class issue: only those with opportunity and income can consider the option of outsourcing. In the 80s I was a young mom, working at night as a bartender, going to school during the day and in between trying to be an involved mom. My traditional husband was working 50 hours a week and so all of the domestic chores fell on me. I remember many late nights of hand washing dishes, cleaning the bathroom at 5am, spending all of Sunday cleaning the house and doing laundry. I lived this way for the 10 years it took for to complete my degrees. Hiring someone else to any kind of work simply was not an option as remains the case for the billions of people living in poverty in our world
My experience taught me much: cooking skills, time management skills, a sense of self-sufficiency, a true appreciation for learning how to relax, and that time is precious.
But the most important lesson I learned is that we often are our worst enemies: we follow the cultural dictates of big houses that must always appear clean and tidy, groomed yards free of weeds and the appearance that our lives are orderly, successful and in control. So we work 50 hours a week making a living and we spend another 25 hrs a week catering to the demands of our accumulated stuff and others’ perceptions of who we are and how we live.
One of the saddest things I read was a post from a woman who has two children under the age of 5, a career that she is a bit tired of, a partner who is able to support the family, and health problems from her stressful lifestyle of commuting, childcare, dedicated time to being a “good mom” and social events. She recently posted that she talked with her financial advisor and feels that she could possibly take a year or two off and not significantly affect her retirement fund.
Another friend worked 2 extra years past her retirement age though she was bored to tears and tired of the politics because she wanted new furniture in both of her homes. She hired out all of our housework and landscaping maintenance though she said they never did things the way she liked them done. Six months after she retired, she died in the middle of the night of an aneurysm.
Wisdom often arrives late in life. Now in my late 50s and planning an early retirement to a beautiful rural property with a 1000 sq ft house and my own small studio for writing, art and exercise, I welcome the opportunity to live simply and frugally. Growing my own food (which I have done for many years), making my own medicine, walking in the woods foraging and wildcrafting and reading whenever I want to.
My advice is don’t outsource unless it is a issue of kindness to another less fortunate person; reconsider your lifestyle and your stuff. And create – make your world a more beautiful place.
Does anyone ever regret not working more?
Our family is deep into the practicalities of thinking about this for our own life right now. We’re both teachers and live in the (expensive, competitive) Front Range of Colorado. There’s a lot of great things here, but it’s so expensive that we really need both of us to work, no matter how frugal and self-sufficient we try to get (and we’ve been working hard at it for 9 years in this spot). Right now we’re thinking about the fact that we could sell our teeny house here and move to the MidWest or Upper South and buy a similar or nicer house outright. Having no mortgage would give us the freedom to just have one of us working full-time and the other doing the households tasks, child-rearing, etc, plus the flexibility to adjust careers or pursue other interests if something came up. If we don’t do that and stay in Colorado, I could quit my job and work on developing some extra income in the “gig” economy of tutoring or childcare for friends…but that keeps us in the barely making it loop that we want to get out of and the double-duty of being the household manager while trying to develop a new side business and keep that going.
Anyone want to us tell us what to do?! The thought of leaving our pleasant sunny winters and lots of family and friends is heart-breaking, but we’re becoming more and more aware of how we can’t enjoy those things because of the high-stress/high-cost modern American dream lifestyle here.
If you haven’t read Mr Money Mustache, you might want to check him out. He lives in Colorado.
We love MMM! He lives about a mile from us. Part of our decision-making time is coming from realizing that we’ve lived (almost, not quite!) with his level of frugality for a long time, but we’re still not quite about to make it (or make it with any sort of savings ability) on one teacher income here on the Front Range.
Move to the south! Depending on where in the south you go, there is still plenty of outdoor things to do like hiking and nature. The national forests of the south are heavily under utilized.
We left Florida to come back to Texas because we could not afford to buy a house in Florida. We could have moved to north Florida, and maybe we should have—we loved Florida—but our family was in Texas. We were able to buy a little bit of land and a nice house for less than what the going rate was for what our rental two bed/two bath 70s fixer upper on a postage stamp was going for in south Florida.
Plus, the south could use new blood.
If you are outsourcing all of those things you are outsourcing life itself. It’s talking to my child about homework as I make dinner or do dishes. It’s the accomplishment I feel when tackling a project. Technology has the potential (and sometimes does) to be a wonderful tool to share skills and information, but as with so many things, the pure commercialization of technology is resulting in great harm.
I have a personal analogy that kind of summarizes it for me. When I was in the corporate world I would have never dreamed of living without a dishwasher.When I moved into my current house the dishwasher broke. The house being a fixer-upper, there were other more pressing items. Fast forward 7 years later and I have no desire for a dishwasher. I look out my kitchen window as I wash dishes and gaze at the river out front. Watch birds land in the bushes. Think about my plans for tomorrow. Generally have a few unplanned mental moments.
Repetitive domestic work has value beyond the task being completed. It grounds us. It allows our brains a rest from the barrage of images launched at us every second of every day.
there truly is nothing new under the sun. This is the same old “economy” that ruled Europe for centuries and peaked in 1914 when war became the beginning of the end of that system. Hordes of “ordinary” (aka lower class) people served those with money. Worked long hours for pitiful wages as “servants” – polished the silver, swept the floors, raised the children, did the laundry and the dishes and the cooking, cared for the livestock, milked the cows, drove the cars (or horse and buggy/carriages as the case may be) and on and on and on.. even the best and the brightest of that servant class had no real chance to advance, to educate themselves, to “rise” above the level of the social class they were born into. And even if, on those very, very rare occasions when someone managed, somehow, to become wealthy, they were still just “lower class”. Do we really want to go back to that lifestyle? That caste system (cuz that’s what it was/is). If that’s the road we go down, we will become like India, for the same reasons, and the wealthy can once again feel virtuous and noble b/c they’re offering a barely subsistence wage to the poor slobs “destined” to be servants forever and ever, amen, who do the work of living for them, amen.
Interesting idea! I couldn’t help but be reminded of the “Lives of Edwardian Servants”-type documentaries I’ve watched when I read this post. It’s not perfectly comparable, but it reminded me of this time period’s upper class outsourcing home tasks in order to manage increasingly large homes/elaborate lifestyles. Attention was then given to philanthropic or philosophical pursuits.
No judgement either way, just the thought that it’s sort of surreal to think of society (in a way) circling back to a Victorian or Edwardian way of life.
Your articles are for when it abutysoell, positively, needs to be understood overnight.
I was having similar musings after reading one of those “the robots will take all of our jobs” articles. There are tasks I wouldn’t mind having automatically done, or not have to do ALL THE TIME, but accomplishment is a point of pride. Even pet dogs like jobs! Even if robots made good food become extra super cheap, I think I’d want to garden. Even if I could get custom clothes the way I wanted cheaply and ethically, I’d want to make some things myself, because I like to. And when I’m puzzling through a complicated problem or the right way to phrase something, my go-to method since college has been to start thinking about it so I have the facts in my head and then wash dishes or do laundry ’til I have an aha. ‘Cause that’s when my brain unwinds enough to make the connections.
This is kind of a tangential comment about the value of work done in the home economy, not about outsourcing that work per se.
You get to “keep” 100% of the value you create in the home economy. All of your labor, all of the good stuff you do, and everything you make, is 100% yours. Not true if you’re out there working for someone else – for a paycheck. First, your employer absolutely must take a chunk of your production or she/he wouldn’t remain in business very long! Second, the government takes another big chunk in the form of taxes, etc. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that (some of us) find work in the home economy more fulfilling than work for “the man”?
I am actually in that cunndrum right now.
My husband and I are not wealthy at all. We make around 100,000, but our careers are demanding. My husband in an IT Director and I a, an English teacher. In our rural area, our salaries are pretty high compared to our neighbors.
Our children both just entered middle school, and with my husbands responsibilities, I am basically a single mom to get them to all of their commitments on top of advising three extra curricular clubs myself.
I have heard moms in my area have maid services and I was surprised. Mostly because these moms have fewer children and less demanding jobs than myself. But it put the idea in my mind: my life would be easier if someone would just clean the floors and dust once a week.
However, after mulling it over for about a half year, I came to this conclusion: If we can’t manage it as a family then we should do/have it. We have always been close to the earth and purposeful in our living. If my life is so crazy that I can’t clean my own house or feed my own children then I need to reprioritize.
Living with purpose doesn’t just mean buying less and recycling. It means taking less money or less responsibility to live well. I don’t want a life that is so crazy I can’t take care of the things I worked for.
I totally get it isn’t the same for everyone, but I this if we owned smaller houses, had less possessions, and stopped chasing a carrot everyone told us we needed a lot of people would be happier and could live with less money.
I love reading posts like this and all the thoughtful comments! It’s like the old blogging days! 🙂
I’m another person who feels resentful about the monetizing of every activity and ignoring the larger benefits and reasons behind why we do things (mental health, joy, wasting less, preserving the environment). And I think: what if we all worked half time and there were twice as many jobs to go around? We’d all have more time to spend with our families/do hobbies/grow food/read books* or whatever. But then I remember our entire economy in the US is built on people buying stuff to make up for the fact that they have no time, energy, or happiness because they work too much, he (I know I’m oversimplifying, but still).
*An article I read years ago that inspired me to cut back my hours had all these people with earnest reasons for downsizing: kids, volunteering, etc. and one person who said they just wanted to read more. I loved it!
Ieneke Van Houten says
It has been my aim for the last half century (yikes! I love saying things like that) to disengage as much as possible from an economic system that is stark raving bonkers. Apart from the immoral rapaciousness of unregulated capitalism it totally depends on continuous growth. Under the fiat system banks create money out of thin air when a loan is made, but then it has to be repaid with interest. We have a finite planet, duh! I love the renewed interest in making the home a place of production instead of just consumption. It does bug me when people call their productive household a homestead, but oh well.
Ieneke Van Houten says
Oops, I forgot this episode. In the nineties I was the main family breadwinner and had a patchwork of 3 part time endeavours. One was a regular job, the other things were self employment. It was a stressful time. I hired a friend for two hours every other week to do house cleaning. She came on Friday. It was wonderful to walk into the place at the start of the weekend and find the whole dwelling clean all at once. These days I occasionally hire the next door teenager to mow the lawn. I hate lawn mowing.
Interesting thoughts! I live in Germany and one thing that stands out to me is that in America, it’s assumed that taking care of your own domestic activities are unpaid. Outsourcing then monetizes these activities. Doing your own laundry makes no money, but doing someone else’s does. In Germany, however, every family gets “Child Money” monthly from the time the baby is born until the child reaches adulthood. So in a sense, I am paid to read to my kid. There are many other social safety net situations where I could get paid to deal with my own domestic life or outsource for free. If my husband is in the hospital or sustains a serious injury, my health insurance would pay someone to help out in the household. Students get highly subsidized child care, a situation where the outsourcer likely has a lower income than the service provider. Mother’s get one to three years paid maternity leave.
A universal basic income takes this idea to another level paying everyone to take care of themselves with the option to outsource and pass on that income if desired.
Capitalists are always pointing to the number of people employed by the wealthy as justification for what is really a hoarding of resources. We should be challenging a system that works for very few people and exploits many (to say nothing of the Earth and all the other living beings on it), not praising the wealthy for doling out scraps.
To be clear, I’m talking about people with massive wealth—not Joe Schmo paying his neighbor to catsit or whatever. Unless you’re willing to be homeless (and we’ve basically outlawed homelessness) it’s impossible to completely check out of the system.
Wow, Erica, this is the most through-provoking thing I’ve read in a while. I have been thinking about these issues too, from a different perspective.
We are living in Mexico for a year and I don’t have access to my usual home-keeping activities (beer making, growing food, canning etc). And it’s expected to have a housekeeper in at least every two weeks. So, on a personal level I am thinking “no,” I will not outsource when we return to the US. I miss growing and preserving food. And I still get much satisfaction from hanging the laundry to dry and folding it.
From an economic viewpoint, I think you and some of the commenters are right on target that this “gig economy” is leading to greater wealth inequality — where it will end seems frightening to me.
wayne ferrell says
People operating in the gig economy often don’t pay income taxes and who can blame them?
Wow, I’m surprised at all the comments saying they would *not* outsource domestic chores. I have outsourced, and I’ve recommended outsourcing to many small business owners/freelancers or even other households. The challenges, for me, have been more practical, with only a little homemaker’s guilt, than altruistic or ethical.
Here’s the deal, when I was a young mother, deciding whether I should work full time or continue to stay at home, I did the math. At a certain wage, and with how much more I knew we’d spend on some things with two working parents, it had to pencil out ahead of the game. It barely did back then, so I went back to work.
Then, when we were a two income household, it was driving me crazy that I barely had time to read to my kids, so I did the math again. This time, with a slightly less dollars-only approach. If we paid $x for housecleaning, what would that free up for me or us? Time to make healthier meals (which often also saves money)? Time with my kids? Time for more sleep and less stress so I could function better at work? Oh yes. Though not too far into having the wonderful luxury of twice a month housecleaning, we took on a car loan and ditched the household help. Ah well.
Now, we hire cleaning help in the household I share with my guy. BUT we host and share our house with a revolving set of (usually) 20-somethings who really don’t get housecleaning yet, plus oodles of guests and visitors, so while we’re technically empty-nesters, we’re not empty at the same time. Plus, my guy does not see the detritus he leaves behind (really, he just doesn’t see it!) so he contributes to picking up after himself or otherwise contributing by paying for someone else to do it on his behalf.
The part that gets weird is that I get kind of embarrassed when the household help does our personal laundry or changes our sheets. It seems like such a ridiculous luxury that we live so humbly in some ways and yet have this servitude happening for us. Though I get over it most of the time when I realize that I often shop and store/organize food for any where from 8 to 100 mouths, plus wrangling so many other bits and bobs for the community and my business. So, even without kids, it’s no wonder I run out of time to wash the sheets!
For my small business clients, I’ve often tried to encourage that they hire help or assistants. Let’s say you can make $90 per hour at your business. If you can pay someone, let’s say, $15 or $20 per hour to take care of answering the phone, some light bookkeeping, etc., then theoretically, this would free you up to spend more time on billable hours or content.
The challenge always is that good help is hard to find, train and retain. Gosh it is hard. Similar for housekeepers. I have struggled just training folks to clean without toxic chemicals. Gah. Wouldn’t you think that would be more widely known by now? Or to notice things that need cleaning. We have the added challenge of being in a rural location that has such a low population that there just are not workers around nearby. That’s a real challenge!
I think back to when I first read May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude.” I was all of 23 and the life she described was so foreign to me. She was a single (?) woman, no children, and wrote books for a living. She hired landscape maintenance help, and household help, which was part of the lifestyle she intricately and eloquently described that worked for her to create and feed her muse. It seemed so weird to me that she could and would pay for help.
Now, however, I am intricately aware of how distracting a disorganized, messy house, (with or without expiring/rotting food waiting to be processed!) can be when I’m trying to work from home. It’s the worst! (For me any way.) And I now earn a lot more per hour than I did when I was 23 (thank goodness!). Plus, (I think) we pay our housekeepers well.
There is an ownership, maybe even a power (the power of nurturing and love?) that comes from caring for one’s home, one’s garden, one’s children. That’s something I do feel. Though that nurturing is still there when as a head of household (or a business), paid helpers, under your direction, extend your reach, your ability to nurture and caretake. It’s different, maybe diluted in some ways, but it’s still valuable and still from you.
It’s weird to explain it like that. My main point is that in some very practical ways, I think outsourcing can make good sense. We are all so JUDGY these days that we can’t give ourselves a break for not being able to do it all, or others judging us for hiring help. If you’re fortunate enough to have the resources for outsourcing, and what you gain out of it is of greater value to you than what you spend, then I heartily encourage you to go for it!
Lovely to read your writing as usual, Erica!
Your comment about small business owners is on point. How many businesses fail because the owner is really good at what they do, but rubbish at bookkeeping or marketing? Those of us who are in a position to hire out the things that are less important to us personally can not only support someone else, we can focus our energy on its highest priorities.
I’m a union electrician; the work is great and so is the pay. But the commute is a real bear. I’m usually gone 12-14 hours a day, which leaves very little time for housework, garden, and the rest. At heart I’m a DIY’er, but in practice I find myself much more cash-rich and time-poor then I’ve ever been till now.
Right now, I’m busy setting up for an early retirement and several decades of independence. But in order to do that, I’m going to need to hire out (or put off) a lot of things I’d rather do myself. And because I live in an area with depressed wages (thus my long commute), there are plenty of workers eager to fill my needs.
When I find someone who does a great job, I do up the rate after they’ve proved themselves. Not only do I think they deserve it, it also keeps me at the top of their client list!
A really good answer, full of ranyltaoiti!