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September 21, 2010

Comments

This kind of stuff has been around my head for a while, in diffuse way. But I hadn't seen the role of the domestic workers (personal servants) in this way. Great analysis!
In their greed the rich will not even pay their servants a decent wage.
Surely the Servant Effect is not the only root of the split between the middle and the working class, but it's part of the mechanism.

When I took care of my grandson in NYC from 2007 to 2009, I mostly talked to nannies. Everyone knew I was his grandmother because white women weren't nannies. As one superb nanny told me, "this job hurts my heart." They fall in love with the children, take excellent care of them, and can be dismissed by a Sunday night phone call. The stories they told me were so often tragic. So many had left their own children with their families in Latin America.

Their stories resembled the stories I heard from the home health aides who helped me take care of my mom in her last three years. The home health agencies charged us more than twice as much as they paid the aides.

In the late 60s and early 70s, the feminist movement wanted to reform the economy, reduce the work week, so both parents could share in the care of young children. Hiring poorer women of color and paying them low wages without benefits was not the goal.

JD, I think you may be over-analyzing this a bit. Full time domestic help is pretty damned rare for most people. That said, I've seen what RG describes and it is very, very hard on the nannies. I can't understand doing that to someone.

They fall in love with the children, take excellent care of them, and can be dismissed by a Sunday night phone call. The stories they told me were so often tragic.

Gah, that strikes close to home, as my wife and I have been discussing whether to replace our current nanny who has taken care of our 18 month old son on weekdays since he was 3 1/2 months old.

My wife did off-the-books day care for a work colleague of mine from when the baby was six weeks old (when mom went back to work). Mom sent the child to nursery school at 3, didn't need the daycare any more, my wife was heartbroken.

(Upside: Year before last, we got to go to the "baby's" wedding.)

Full-time domestic help is not that rare counting nannies, and it's not rare at all among the $500k/year+ crowd from what I can determine. It's certainly not rare among the political-media-corporate elites that drive public debate and determine what is "required" for a reasonable life.

And yeah, the phenomenon of nannies with their own children leaving them with grandparents and often in another country so they can attend to the children of wealthy white Americans - seems unhealthy to me in aggregate. If they were looking after their own kids as well, if it was more of a co-operative effort, that'd be a little different.

With an 11 month old in the house I do realize that babies require a lot of personal attention and it's not a process amenable to industrialization. (Maybe those chicken cages where the poop falls through onto a conveyor belt could work...? Hey it's JUST AN IDEA.) Something more co-operative might work okay, we may end up doing something like that with some other friends with new babies.

I don't think it's unreasonable to have some concern that there might be a return to the idea that a civilized household has one or two full-time servants with the great polarization in wealth that has occurred lately and with current levels of unemployment. People already spend vast amounts of money on conspicuous consumption of goods with objectively very low welfare values - the McMansion and the general rise in house sizes for one. Again, it's less any individual case and more what it says about inequality and equity when some people are consuming things that give them no actual pleasure while others are housing- and food-insecure even when employed.

JD, I think you may be over-analyzing this a bit.

I'm going to shock everyone here by agreeing with McK. We are all dependent on the labor others perform on our behalf, whether that is in the abstract in the context of manufactured goods, or more directly and personally through hired domestic help. If we could afford it, I would happily hire a maid to do our dishes and laundry and keep the house in order, because it would free up our time for doing things we'd rather be doing. We still pay good money to some neighborhood kids to maintain our lawn every two weeks.

We're just lazy and value our time more than our money, but for some people with very large homes or a lot of assets this approaches being a necessity. At some point you need hired help because maintaining what you have would become a full-time job. If you can afford to hire that help, I don't see how you're doing anything worse than creating a job for someone who isn't as fortunate. We should all be so lucky.

The nanny stores told by others in this thread are heartbreaking, and I certainly sympathize all too well with them, having raised and come to love a child that wasn't mine. But those issues have nothing to do with the notion of creating a permanent underclass to serve the middle class.

But it's a societal bad smell to see a lot of personal servitude; an indication that something is going wrong somewhere. In software engineering they call these kind of indicators "code smells"; things that are technically okay, but if seen in quantity tend to mean that something is really screwed up under the surface.

With respect, it sounds as if the meat of your issues with paid domestic help really do boil down to the aesthetics.

I'm going to shock everyone here by agreeing with McK.

Secretly, Catsy agrees with me all the time. Smile Face.

JD, at one time, the US had a permanent servant class. They were then called "Negroes." Those days are gone and good riddance.

The US is well on its way to having a new permanent servant(/laborer) class called "illegal immigrants", so I don't think this is a dead issue.

As for over-analysis, stipulated. Be pretty quiet around here without that though.

I take something different away from this.

To me, the prevalence of service jobs -- cleaning services, lawn services, child care, what have you -- is an indicator of the number of hours that working class to middle class people have to work in order to make ends meet.

One job at forty hours doesn't pay the bills anymore.

The US is well on its way to having a new permanent servant(/laborer) class called "illegal immigrants", so I don't think this is a dead issue.

Leaving aside how to deal with illegal immigration, there is too much upward mobility, assimilation, etc. for that too happen. Initially, sure, new arrivals, with minimal education, skills and little or no English will default to entry level positions. Three generations downstream, not so much. With the exception of African Americans--a wholly noncomparable immigration experience (enslavement)--the immigration pattern of Hispanics is more similar than dissimilar to prior immigrant groups. For example, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, with an influx of Vietnamese, one could have predicted a new servant class. That prediction would have been wrong in spades.

"The big problem is that the widespread expectation that a middle-class lifestyle includes a significant amount of labor performed on your behalf by other people..."

"Full-time domestic help is not that rare counting nannies, and it's not rare at all among the $500k/year+ crowd from what I can determine."

But the $500K/year crowd are hardly "middle class". The $250K/year crowd are less than 2% of the population, after all. I realize that it's become something of a fad for everybody to call themselves "middle class", but people pulling down a half million bucks a year are WELL into "wealthy" territory by any even vaguely objective standard.

I'm an engineer, so is my brother. By any account we make pretty good money, but beyond hiring an occasional baby sitter, we scarcely have any labor at all supplied us. Nannies aren't even a consideration in our universe.

the immigration pattern of Hispanics is more similar than dissimilar to prior immigrant groups.

Just look at the Hispanics whose ancestors came here two or three generations ago. They're thoroughly assimilated, including the extent to which Anglo culture has adopted some aspects of Hispanic culture. My impression is that assimilated Hispanics are some of the most vigorous opponents of illegal Hispanic immigration. Anyone who thinks they can't or won't assimilate is arguing against tons of evidence to the contrary.

Some of you are missing the argument Jacob Davies is making. He is arguing that widespread use of direct-paid servant labor by the middle class means that the middle class suddenly has a direct, tangible interest in keeping wages low and that the situation creates an adversarial relationship between the middle class and a certain class of laborers. In fact the goal should be the opposite from a policy standpoint: make sure that all laboring classes have their interests aligned in order to ensure that they all reap the benefits of an expanding economy. You're less likely to support that if your lifestyle is dependent on keeping someone else's wages as low as possible.

There is an example for the thesis of this post: The availability of cheap servants probably also kept apartheid alive in South Africa for longer than it otherwise would have lasted.-- Indeed, illegal immigration still exists not because our rulers feel sympathy with poor immigrants, but because employers as a class like to have cheap labor available. If CEOs were hired on merit, with world-wide competition and corresponding wage depression, immigration laws would be more strictly enforced.
Then, one should consider, when living in a country with a large trade deficit, that most services cannot be exported; so it is desirable for the country to encourage its labor force - by subsidies to education, progressive taxes - to shift into more productive and manufacturing activities. (The argument that a maid may allow an engineer to work longer hours and increase his productivity is specious; it is more bankers and inherited wealth who can afford such).-- However, I observe that the US has an industrial policy; it is just that the industry being encouraged is the financial services industry. And these are the people who can afford nannies.

I understand that's what he's arguing. The problem is that premise: That direct-paid servant labor is widely used by anything which could be reasonably characterized as the "middle class".

I think that's a loony premise. Tell me, just what percentage of the population actually employ nannies? Half a percent? One percent?

"Widespread"? Somebody has watched too many episodes of "The Nanny".

Tell me, just what percentage of the population actually employ nannies?

And maids and gardeners and cleaning staff for hotels or Wal-marts and kitchen help and farm laborers and construction workers? And it sure is funny how these folks never get their own sitcom.

I'm going to shock everybody by agreeing with Brett. Middle class people can't afford servants on a regular basis. Maybe a cleaning lady just before the relatives come for Christmas or a handyman for stuff the homeowners don't have the time or skills to fix, but regular household help? Not a middle calss phenomenon.

Domestic workers should be allowed to join unions so that their working conditions and pay would be more equitable.

Some middle class people who have multiple small children find that a nanny is more affordable than the cost of several children in daycare. It's certainly a legitimate economic decision, if neither parent wishes to make a long break in his or her career, to sacrifice one parent's entire income to the nanny in order the parent have the continuity and opportunity for advancement. Many parents have jobs that have erratic schedules, not allowing them to be available to pick up a child on time at day care. A nanny is essential then, even if it's expensive in the short term.

Most middle class families do not have servants, except for nannies, and they make the decision to have a nanny as an investment in their career, not as something that makes short-term economic sense.

The group being talked about now calls themselves the "creative class", after Richard Florida.

They are obsessed with their "superiority" to blue-collar workers based on "education", "professionalism" and "meritocracy".

And yet
- education is not necessarily skill
- a carpenter is every bit as professional as a lawyer
- a garbarge collector is far more important to society than a stockbroker
- the most genuinely creative members of the creative class have no problem being union members (e.g. musicians and actors)
- protectionism (not meritocracy) is rampant. Tenure, State Bar, Accountants who block outsourcing of their jobs ("US regulators must deal with US accountants"), Wall Streeters who threaten to leave en masse the day a project goes into production, etc. etc.

The problem is that premise: That direct-paid servant labor is widely used by anything which could be reasonably characterized as the "middle class".
I confess that I have developed a bit of a smirk when I see the definition of "middle class" expanded when convenient (to include those making more than $100k or $200k or even $500k/yr or who will be subject to estate taxes) and then contracted when necessary (to deny that a lot of "middle class" people use housecleaners or gardeners).

The statistics I could find (from 10 years ago) suggested that there were about 900,000 domestic workers in the US, 50% maids, 30% nannies, plus various others, and that the overwhelming majority are paid under the table, so receive no Social Security contributions etc.

The number of preschoolers looked after by nannies was 3% overall and 8% among children with mothers who had 4-year degrees, per the Census Bureau, although I suspect those numbers are grossly understated because of the way most of them are paid. Even though the Census isn't the IRS, I doubt people are honestly admitting to their illegal nannies on official forms. But it's impossible to say by how much it's understated.

And because of wealth concentration effects it's likely that in certain circles the prevalence is much higher than 8%.

But I'm not so much concerned that it is a problem now so much as that it has the potential to become a problem if it became the norm (again) that middle class people had servants; I think it's a more pernicious thing than conspicuous consumption of material goods, which does tend to trickle down eventually (e.g. cars can go from being ultra-luxury items to universal necessities, but servants can never be universal because someone has to be them).

And I do think it's a factor in why elite pundits and politicians are happy to let the illegal immigration situation slide. Maybe not a big one.

A permanent servant class maybe isn't the right way to describe illegal immigrants; it's more of a replenishing, cyclical system that provides a continuous supply of fresh new exploitable workers. But yes, the fact that their children are likely to make progress is a significant difference.

We have a nanny. I wouldn't describe her as part of some underclass. She lives in a nice town, has nice things, etc. She's not an illegal immigrant. She is, get this, white. *gasp*

We're fortunate to be able to afford it. It's not exactly cheap - $600/wk. It's something we are planning to do for 12-18 months, after which we'll see about switching over to a small daycare.

I don't know if it's really "middle class." Most people we know either go with daycare or have a stay-at-home parent (or a mix). I think we're the only ones with a nanny.

It is a bit odd to reflect on having a "servant."

I don't know if it's really "middle class."

You're spending $600 a week on a nanny. Median household income in the US is around $50,000, and the weekly pay check after deductions for that amount is probably going to be around $700 a week.

You're spending almost as much on a nanny as the majority of households in the US have to spend on everything. Housing, food, clothing, transportation, child care and on and on.

No, it's not really middle class. Very far from it.

If we could afford it, I would happily hire a maid to do our dishes and laundry and keep the house in order, because it would free up our time for doing things we'd rather be doing.

The 'aesthetic' problem is about the difference between paying someone for their house-cleaning labor, say, and paying someone to love your child for you. And 'aesthetic' is the wrong word anyway. 'Bad smell' is closer.

I don't see anything wrong with having someone help with chores so as to free you up to do something better. But, frankly, I'd classify nurturing your own child as 'something better'. You hire people to help take care of and maintain your possessions - house, grounds, chauffeuring, etc. Your child is not a possession. I teach quite a few children with full-time nannies/au pairs, and while I wouldn't call their lives exactly 'wretched', I certainly do notice some measure of emotional neglect: nannies come and go, and the actual parent is more of an 'executive parent'. Why have children if you don't have time (emotionally) for them? Of course there are exceptions - which prove the rule. Since we euphemize everything in this culture, why not do it a little more honestly in this case, and just call them 'mammies' rather than 'nannies'?

JD's larger point is correct, IMO. The idea that it's good for a middle class person to support, or not oppose, this kind of servitude-pressure is another example of the Wal-Mart Fallacy: Sure, you don't get raises, but look how much cheaper some stuff is! It's just *like* getting a raise. Don't worry about exploiting cheap labor and pushing more of your fellow citizens into poverty - that could never happen to you...could it?. When wealth - including excess wealth - inexorably recedes upwards, it's just a matter of time before most people (or their children or grandchildren) find themselves in a boat on dry land. It happens slowly enough that things like the Wal-Mart Fallacy (and a bunch of others) work pretty well politically, but it's not really so complicated, or difficult to see if you dare to see it.

BTW, kudos to JD for showing, once again, that immigrants are often much clearer on what being an American means than are natives. Servants?!

There might even develop a class division between the domestic servants*. I read that part of the very wealthy make very deliberate choices in nannies for special skills esp. languages (Chinese is a favorite). They also check that those nannies speak not the language of the commoners of their country but that of the higher classes the nannied children will one day do business with (women with university degrees are therefore preferred).
Extrapolating from that one could imagine an upper class employing elite servants, a middle class emplyoing commoners and a lower class defined as not being able to afford any servants (or being the servants themselves).
Roman times** again when poverty could be defined as being unable to afford a slave

*as opposed to those that do the dirty work outside. Those will remain preferably lower class and illegal people.
**late republic and imperial age

To be clear, is the argument that day-care workers are not servants? To me, they are simply outside contractor servants. They still provide a service... except now your child is but one of X in a room, instead of being the center of attention in our own home.

Our nanny used to work in daycares. The pay sucked, the rules sucked, the benifits sucked. She now makes more $ and has more flexibility.

But, frankly, I'd classify nurturing your own child as 'something better'. You hire people to help take care of and maintain your possessions - house, grounds, chauffeuring, etc. Your child is not a possession.

No, she's not. The only better option (over a nanny) is to have one parent stay home. That would've been me. I would have had to quit my job, which, while it pays less than my wife's, is a damned good one. There's no guarantee I could get it, or really anything as good, back 4-5 years from now.

I did the math, because I was tempted to say home w/my daughter. The financial hit would have been huge. Sure, the current situation eats most of my take-home pay, but it's temporary and meanwhile, I keep my job. I keep getting raises, I keep pumping money into my 401(k), etc.

I did take 4 months off unpaid this summer to be with her (my wife took the maximum leave and I picked right up when she went back). Amelia was 7 months old by the time we hired a nanny. She will be 19-25 months old before we look to put her in a (hopefully small) daycare. That's down the road a bit.

It's not a question of "not having time" for her. It's money. Not just the money to pay our mortgage. Not just the money for our retirement. But also the money we need to save up for her college education. Just guessing here, but I kinda doubt we're going to get much financial aid.

Could it have been done? Yes, it could have. That said, I think we've ended up in a good place.

Basically, McTex & Brett are right here, I think: I do not think the idea that the "middle class" (if that is defined in a sane way) is dependant on full-time domestic servants holds water.

Daycare, yes. In many, many households both parents work and therefore need childcare. The vast majority cannot afford a nanny, and many cannot afford to have a parent stay home.

JD, however, appears to not count daycare as a problem: "The big problem I have with servants who work directly for one person or family - and especially full-time servants..."

Rob, I'm guessing that what people are talking about is more along the lines of a nannie who may live in the house or in quarters nearby and is available more or less 24/7. Someone watching your child during the day while you're at work might be called a nannie and might be called a babysitter. I don't see any shame in what you're doing and it sounds like you're a devoted father.

I'd also say, given your elaborations, that you are, in fact, pretty middle class, even if upper. You're working to maintain your employment, despite the short-term and significant consumption of your income from that employment on child care. That's different from working to make an amount far, far in excess of what you pay your nannie. It's also different from having a nannie even though your wife doesn't need to work. It's even more different from having a nannie even though neither you nor your wife need to work because you live off your investments.

I think what people find most ugly is people who hire someone to raise their children despite the fact that they are in a position to raise their children themselves. It may be a class thing that those of us who aren't wealthy just don't get. It may also be a class thing that those who are wealthy just don't get.

JD's argument appears to be specific to the middle class, so talking about people who live off investment income and all that... well, maybe that's what johnnybutter is talking about, but I don't think it's relevant to JD's argument.

He's alleging that a middle class that expects to need servants is a middle class that will (conciously or unconciously) join with the rich in screwing the poor.

I suppose that is possible (and I think a good argument can be made that the middle & upper classes often do unite for that purpose), IF the middle class did, in fact, expect to have servants. I just don't think that's remotely true.

I'm not talking about what people, including JD, find problematic in some macro sense. I'm talking about what people find ugly on an individual-instance level. The discussion seemed to be progressing toward the latter.

Yes, it did, quickly. And my response to JB's post continued it.

I'm now trying to get back to the original argument.

I mean, people find all sorts of things ugly/smelly/whatever. But JD was asserting something more: that it actually warps our politics. I think that's a lot more interesting than us telling each other what we find icky.

It really is interesting to see how this profession has evolved over time. It used to be that people needed servants to get by. Now, it seems to be a status of wealth and prestige which makes this profession all that much more relevant and popular today.

Okay, Rob. You just seemed to be defending yourself a bit, and I was feeling empathetic.

Me: The big problem I have with servants who work directly for one person or family - and especially full-time servants..

That was a bit ambiguous. I don't particularly have a problem with any given instance of that kind of behavior, in fact, we could be in that situation myself shortly. I think it would be problematic if that became a general expectation, not because in any particular instance it would tend to be inegalitarian but because en masse it would tend to increase support for inegalitarian policy, and further, I'd take it as a bad sign if there were sufficient numbers of people in a situation where domestic service is a good option, since just as a matter of simple finance it must pay a fraction of what the employing family makes themselves.

A society where being middle class means having servants is a society that must have a significant underclass to draw them from, and that underclass cannot become middle class themselves.

Daycare is different because it does not so directly pit the wages of the care worker against the employer, because wages are split between many parents. And it's at least somewhat amenable to productivity improvements from technology and work habits (although there's not much about corralling toddlers that can be heavily mechanized).

Whether it's any kind of imminent problem is certainly questionable. I feel like with the concentration of wealth in recent years it's become more prominent, but I don't have any stats to back that up. I do think it's a factor in certain issues where public debate is driven by the political/media/business elite who do tend to take servants as essential. They're not particularly middle class, of course, although they probably think they are.

I disagree w/you on daycare. The wages have a direct impact on what it costs to send your kid there. Those costs are a big deal to parents, and they want them as low as they can (while also, obviously, wanting high-quality care & a lower kid-to-worker ratio).

I hear you concerning the out-of-touch elite, but since when is that new? The elite is always out of touch, no?

"...(although there's not much about corralling toddlers that can be heavily mechanized)."

Robotics engineering and science is advancing every day!

Two-thirds smiley.

Rob, I'm guessing that what people are talking about is more along the lines of a nannie who may live in the house or in quarters nearby and is available more or less 24/7....I don't see any shame in what you're doing and it sounds like you're a devoted father.

I agree with this - was not singling out Rob.

I'd like to stipulate two things. One, that the term 'middle class' is an ideal rather than a precise income range; I'd observe that all but the very rich in the US think of themselves as 'middle class' (and, perversely, some of the very rich think of themselves that way, too!). And two, that what's more important than whether the domestic servant lives with you or not, or how much it costs you to employ them, is how you think of and treat them. [announcer voice] Peon-labor *everyone* can afford!, as a sort of palliative for your own wage stagnation, is both a long-term bad financial deal for you, but also spiritually corrosive (at least from a traditional American pov).

The big problem is that the widespread expectation that a middle-class lifestyle includes a significant amount of labor performed on your behalf by other people creates a wide constituency for class warfare of the middle and upper classes against the lower.

I'd be slightly more equivocal than this. Paying other people to do labor on your personal behalf probably cuts both ways - net positive sometimes, sometimes not. But what I think is dangerous in the terms JD uses, is the widespread illusion among many who really are middle class (as defined by income)or upper middle class, that they are the Jefe Class, and the exploitation of 'little people' from dingy, poorer countries are their due. That masks the reality of the situation: there but for the grace o' G-d goes said member of the Jefe Class.

Billions of advertising and marketing dollars are spent each year in the US to manufacture snobbery - 'premium' this, luxury that, etc. The impression is that everyone whose income is above starvation wages can be, at least to some extent, a discriminating, leisured, bon vivant. It is a cruel, self-defeating illusion, and the direct 'sharing' of cheap labor we're talking about is a part of it. It enables the wholesale screwing of just about everybody.

I think what people find most ugly is people who hire someone to raise their children despite the fact that they are in a position to raise their children themselves. It may be a class thing that those of us who aren't wealthy just don't get. It may also be a class thing that those who are wealthy just don't get.

First, just let me say that, although the conversation turned away from this tone, I found the judgmental attitude about having children and paying people to "raise" them rather ridiculous. People make various choices about providing for their children's care. People's capacity to love their children even though they don't want to give up a satisfying and/or remunerative career, or even if they don't want to spend 24/7 with the kids, isn't really anyone's business. To the extent that there have been studies on the successful upbringing of children of working parents, the evidence is that they do quite well. Most parents that I know have grown children; most worked (therefore had child care); most have good relationships with their children and seem to have raised responsible children.

As to how people treat other people who work for them, people start out with certain social attitudes. It's not the act of hiring people that would turn a fair-minded person who believes in paying a living wage into a selfish exploiter. People who need and can afford help with household tasks are doing a reciprocal service to those willing to accept a needed job. Obviously, they should pay decent wages and observe legal withholding requirements. Whether having household employees (most people don't really call them "servants" in the U.S.) contributes to the numbers of people who are desperate for a living, I don't know, but I don't see how that would occur. There are plenty of desperate people all over the world, and they are in that situation for a number of reasons but I don't think the demand for "servants" is one of them.

Even if I could afford it, I wouldn't feel particularly comfortable with a full-time housekeeper, simply because I enjoy having solitude, and my house isn't big enough for an unrelated person to be hanging around all the time. I don't think it's a moral issue though - the issue is whether people are respected and paid a decent wage.

Whether having household employees (most people don't really call them "servants" in the U.S.) [....]
Euphemisms are terribly useful.

...that they are the Jefe Class

They call me El Jefe
El primo de los matadors
The master of the metaphor,
A chaw chewin' trubador
The one you've come to love and adore,
And I've come to take you away

Well said, Sapient.

Euphemisms are terribly useful.

Well, the terms "master" and "servant" have largely been eclipsed by the terms "employer" and "employee" when you're speaking about any kind of paid work. Many forms of employment, not just household employment, are thankless, boring, repetitive, dirty, etc. In fact, as a colleague used to remind me, that's why they call it a job. Sometimes work is fulfilling and meaningful, but that's certainly not the rule. Working in someone else's household is probably not most people's first choice in a perfect world, but it's a dignified, honorable and useful way to make a living, and there's no reason to call it "servitude" unless people are actually being exploited. That is, unless we want to call all work that people would rather not be doing "servitude." That would cover a lot of us.

With daycare the costs of wage increases are split over more parents, and the overhead further decreases the wage portion of the cost. Plus with daycare the employees are much more likely to have payroll contributions made and maybe even benefits paid for. There isn't the same straight-up "a dollar for you is a dollar from me" effect as with personal employment. Similar effects apply to fractional-time workers like part-time cleaners and gardeners.

It's not the act of hiring people that would turn a fair-minded person who believes in paying a living wage into a selfish exploiter.

I'm not suggesting that such a dramatic transformation occurs. I'm saying that in aggregate, bringing such a stark employer/employee relationship into more homes will almost inevitably push opinions in an inegalitarian direction. No individual need shift their opinion more than marginally for it to make a big difference overall.

As for "servant", it is one of several correct and generally non-pejorative terms for workers in that situation, also called household employees, domestic workers, etc. "Master" is anachronistic, "servant" is not.

I'm not really interested in smoothing over what is actually happening by using a pleasant euphemism. If you think it connotes contempt for the worker in question you are dead wrong.

"Servitude" is a fairly loaded word that I probably shouldn't have used. But it should be noted that domestic workers continue to be treated far worse than most employees of firms, since most are paid under the table and so do not get minimum wage protections or Social Security contributions or unemployment coverage, and since they are exempt from many labor protections that apply to other jobs.

But as I've said a bunch of times, I'm not trying to say that hiring a nanny is doing something wrong, just that it hints at underlying societal problems. It may be that hiring a nanny is the most egalitarian thing you can do at a given moment (especially right now with unemployment so high). It's just that in a better society one would hope for e.g. high-quality subsidized daycare for all and wage levels flat enough that hiring domestic workers is impractical for all but the very very rich.

Working in someone else's household is probably not most people's first choice in a perfect world, but it's a dignified, honorable and useful way to make a living, and there's no reason to call it "servitude" unless people are actually being exploited. That is, unless we want to call all work that people would rather not be doing "servitude."
The distinction I'm making is between employment and being a personal servant. Approximately what year or time frame might you suggest being a "maid" ceased being a "servant" in either American or British usage?

Servant:

Definition of SERVANT
: one that serves others [a public servant]; especially : one that performs duties about the person or home of a master or personal employer
— ser·vant·hood\-ˌhu̇d\ noun
— ser·vant·less adjective
Examples of SERVANT

1. [the wealthy family had servants to clean and cook for them]

Is this wrong?

I'd also say that anyone working in a job that is thankless, boring, repetitive, dirty, etc. because they feel they have no other choice is living in a form of servitude.

ser·vi·tude
noun \ˈsər-və-ˌtüd, -ˌtyüd\
Definition of SERVITUDE
1
: a condition in which one lacks liberty especially to determine one's course of action or way of life

I'd also say that anyone working in a job that is thankless, boring, repetitive, dirty, etc. because they feel they have no other choice is living in a form of servitude.

See also: my all-too-long stint as a McDonald's fry cook.

People's capacity to love their children even though they don't want to give up a satisfying and/or remunerative career, or even if they don't want to spend 24/7 with the kids, isn't really anyone's business.

I have no evidence, just anecdotes. I teach many children who are mostly raised by servants. When the kids have two biological parents, the rule rather than the exception is that one of them is working at a time-consuming job, and the other is off 'fulfilling themselves'. I'm not talking about daycare, nor about Rob's situation - I don't know Rob. I'm talking about people who feel a child is a 'must have item', but don't want to be burdened with spending much time with them. I think that's cheesy. Sorry if that strikes anyone as judgmental. And, like JD, I think people should be - legally - perfectly free to do as they chose in this regard. And I am no less perfectly free to observe the obvious longing for real parental contact and interest these kids tend to evince.

But this is tangential, and it's probably my fault that we're on that tangent. Sorry.

As to how people treat other people who work for them, people start out with certain social attitudes.

And my point is that attitudes have changed quite noticeably just in the last several decades. As the class structure has gotten much steeper, class anxieties down the chain have gotten inflamed - class anxieties which barely *existed* in the 50s, 60s, 70s, when the class structure was much more flat. Then, a solidly middle class person might feel glad they were not, or were no longer, working class, but they identified more with a worker than with a really rich person, who was rather exotic. Nowadays, it's all against all, and along with that comes the terror of falling downwards. I think that terror is often expressed by scoffing at working people, poor working people, and other unlucky duckies (like prisoners who get raped).

I'm sure *you're* very nice to people who work for you, sapient, and I know from experience that lots of domestic employers are likewise nice and respectful. But lots of them aren't, and I'm not talking about millionaires, but rather middle and upper middle class people who avail themselves of cheap labor. People who pretend to be, and/or are flattered into believing, that they are some sort of 'middle class' aristocrat. Not only is it icky, but it's an indicator of how messed up our politics are or will be, which is what I gather JD's main point was.

"Then, a solidly middle class person might feel glad they were not, or were no longer, working class, but they identified more with a worker than with a really rich person, who was rather exotic."

More accurately, when did middle and working class become two different classes?

More accurately, when did middle and working class become two different classes?

Well, they *were* slightly different in that era, but much more similar than different, economically. If you had a union job in the 60s, you might wear a blue collar, but you were probably making middle class income.

Nowadays, there is a big difference: now, 'working class' really means 'working poor' or almost-poor (i.e. a few paychecks away). Not that actual median income people are secure, either.

"More accurately, when did middle and working class become two different classes?"
Working class:

Working class (or Labouring class) is a term used in the social sciences and in ordinary conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs (as measured by skill, education and lower incomes), often extending to those in unemployment or otherwise possessing below-average incomes. Working classes are mainly found in industrialized economies and in urban areas of non-industrialized economies.
Workers on Volkswagen assembly line in Wolfsburg, Western Germany, 1973

As with many terms describing social class, working class is defined and used in many different ways. When used non-academically, it typically refers to a section of society dependent on physical labor, especially when compensated with an hourly wage. Its use in academic discourse is contentious, especially following the decline of manual labor in postindustrial societies. Some academics question the usefulness of the concept of a working class. The term is usually contrasted with the upper class and middle class, in terms of access to economic resources, education and cultural interests. Its usage can be derogatory, but many people self-identify as working class and experience a sense of pride similar to a national identity.

You can go on to read about the various definitions and history if you'd like to know more in answer to your question.

But simply put, at no time has "working class" and "middle class" been synonymous.

[...] For example, a simple stratum model of class might divide society into a simple hierarchy of lower class, middle class and upper class, with working class not specifically designated. Due to the political interest in the working class, there has been debate over the nature of the working class since the early 19th century. Two broad schools of definitions emerge: those aligned with 20th-century sociological stratum models of class society, and those aligned with the 19th-century historical materialism economic models of the Marxists and anarchists. Key points of commonality amongst various ideas include the idea that there is one working class, even though it may be internally divided. The idea of one single working class should be contrasted with 18th-century conceptions of many laboring classes. Sociologists Dennis Gilbert, James Henslin, William Thompson, Joseph Hickey and Thomas Ayling have brought forth class models in which the working class constitutes roughly one third of the population, with the majority of the population being either working or lower class.[1][2][3]
There's more, and I'm not including the many links in the above. You can also Google to read more about the "working class."

I'd suggest going on from there to reading labor history, but it's only a suggestion, of course.

jonnybuter: When the kids have two biological parents, the rule rather than the exception is that one of them is working at a time-consuming job, and the other is off 'fulfilling themselves'. I'm not talking about daycare, nor about Rob's situation - I don't know Rob. I'm talking about people who feel a child is a 'must have item', but don't want to be burdened with spending much time with them. I think that's cheesy.

I'd like to pursue this tangent for a moment, even though I know it was an aside. First, I wonder which biological parent is "fulfilling" him or herself, and which truly has the "must-do" job in jonnybuter's experience. Second, people who have children as a "must have item" are also known to make their children their own personal self-fulfillment project, rather than pawning them off on other people. Bad parents come in many flavors, as do good parents.

I'm certainly a fan of family planning, reproductive rights, and choice about having children. It's an excellent slogan that "every child should be a wanted child." The downside is that there's a completely new attitude about having children among some people. Having a family used to be the natural effect of a sexually active marriage. The children "came along" as new family members, to whom love was (ideally) given, responsibilities owed, and from whom responsibilities were later expected. Obviously, it worked out well or badly, depending on the people and circumstances. Now it seems that children need to be the object of a parent's obsessive interest - it's frowned upon (among some) to bring a child into the world unless you are prepared to isolate the child from anyone's i except your own benevolent guidance. In fact, sending a child to school is now seen by many as an abrogation of a parent's responsibility to shelter a child from the contamination of the wider culture. Homeschooling is the obsessive parent's only responsible choice.

Is this really the way it should be? It's certainly not the way things ever were, when adults had so many responsibilities that children were, perhaps, hanging around largely unsupervised while the parents did endless chores, cared for sick relatives and basically lived their lives. It probably helped that there was an extended family, but kids were not necessarily constantly engaged in an intensive lovefest with their parents. Rather, they were "looked after" which meant that a reasonable attempt was made to make sure they didn't drown or have some other accident.

Gary Farber: Is this wrong? The dictionary is certainly authoritative with regard to the definition of "servant". But as I mentioned before, the word is not commonly used in the United States to refer to household employees. In fact, I can say that in my fifty-plus years, I have never heard the term used among people I know when referring to household workers.

sapient:

[...] But as I mentioned before, the word is not commonly used in the United States to refer to household employees. In fact, I can say that in my fifty-plus years, I have never heard the term used among people I know when referring to household workers.
I apparently am in a hella dictionary mood tonight, but:

Euphemism:

eu·phe·mism
noun \ˈyü-fə-ˌmi-zəm\
Definition of EUPHEMISM
: the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also : the expression so substituted

Whatever, Gary. I wouldn't think of using the term because I honestly don't feel that I'm in a different social class than the people I've variously hired (in my past) to take care of my children, do chores, etc. In fact, some of the people who were employed by me, after some time passed, became far wealthier and more influential than I am. As I said, the work is honorable, dignified, but not necessarily anyone's first choice. The term is used by people who want to make a political point or by people who do want to differentiate between the "classes." (By the way, in addition to having employed "servants," I have also been a "servant". In both cases, I thought of it as a job.)

Oh, and the definition of servant as being "a condition in which one lacks liberty especially to determine one's course of action or way of life." That's pretty much determined by wealth. It's all a matter of how much you make and own versus how much you owe. Pretty much everybody I know.

Now it seems that children need to be the object of a parent's obsessive interest - it's frowned upon (among some) to bring a child into the world unless you are prepared to isolate the child from anyone's i except your own benevolent guidance.

Another strawman, like 'many people have to do jobs they'd rather not, which is why it's called 'a job''.

I actually agree with you that parents shouldn't have to entirely give up their lives and identities just because they have a child, and that many parents' obsessive devotion to their child can be simply the other side of the narcissism-coin to the one I was complaining about. But is it really any of our business, sapient? Who are we to judge?

Yes, children don't usually just 'come along' anymore - that was part of my point, that these parents were perfectly deliberate about having their child or children. In another age, a very ambitious (in any sense) couple might have considered not having children at all - something which is almost unthinkable now. Everyone MUST have a child now, lest their life (the parent) be incomplete.

Yes, I'm being judgmental, about particular people I personally know who I'm sure are not unique to our species. I'm saying that if you have a child, you have some responsibility to it beyond paying some eastern european girl you barely know - usually a series of them, in fact - to slog him around all day, and to basically raise him, except for the twenty minutes you put on your 'daddy' or 'mommy' helmet and are forced to actually be with your own child. I'm saying that being able to get a cheap (desperate) au pair does not absolve you from having to be an adult. Hell, you can still open that pointless art gallery or yoga studio and still go to/have sex with your Jungian analyst. Just consider giving the little person you made a tiny bit more of your precious attention and time.

I'd also say that anyone working in a job that is thankless, boring, repetitive, dirty, etc. because they feel they have no other choice is living in a form of servitude.

See also: my all-too-long stint as a McDonald's fry cook.

I did pretty much every crap job when I was young, delivering papers, mowing lawns, bagging groceries and mopping floors, grill cook in a fast food joint, dishwasher, waiter, pizza delivery and manual labour in a factory.

Fast food was not that bad. It was thankless repetitive and dirty but if it was boring, you were doing it wrong. Between laughing at the stoned fry cook, making fun of the manager (who couldn't fire me because I was the only one who would show up on time at 5 am to help unload the damn truck), eating whatever I wanted even though supposedly you would be fired for eating on the job, telling the manager, with a mouth full of food that I wasn't eating anything on the job, showing the especially squeamish worker the mop bucket with a colony of maggots in it, and hitting on the girls who worked the registers it was not the worst of jobs and certainly not boring. Ask Kevin Spacey.

It wasn't degrading. Being a cook for a rich family would be degrading. So would being a maid or a nanny. Making food for other working class people on the way to or from their crappy working class jobs, not so much.

When I worked at a fast food joint I could eat at fast food joints. Hell, I was rolling in money since I was squatting with 6 other people in an unfinished basement so I paid no rent, I worked at a fast food joint so I bought no food, and I was young, so I never thought about health insurance. All I remember spending money on that summer was kegs of beer and fireworks.

But nannies can't afford nannies, maids can't afford maids, butlers can't afford butlers. That's degrading. And don't buy for a minute the claims of rich people that they think work like that is honourable and dignified. When they quit their six figure job to go honourably scrub the toilets in the 4 bathrooms in someone else's house all day in a dignified manner, I'll believe them. Until then, I'll think of the way many of the people who know me now would treat me if I was back working crap jobs. They wouldn't give me the time of day if they owned a watch shop.

Of all the crap jobs, pizza delivery boy is the best.

Manual labour in a factory is the worst, the only good things about it are that stacking 100 pound boxes for 10 hours a day all summer makes you scarily tough and it also makes you sick of doing it enough to make you think that maybe going back to college isn't such a bad idea.

Of all the crap jobs, pizza delivery boy is the best.

That probably depends greatly on where you live. They're also one of the highest-targeted jobs for armed robbery and assault.

But is it really any of our business, sapient? Who are we to judge? Exactly my point.

Interestingly, when a heterosexual couple hires household help (in the form of childcare, cleaning), it's usually the woman who is relieved of doing some of these chores since women statistically still do them more than men. I wonder if running the yoga studio and the art gallery are meaningless occupations, according to jonnybuter, because it's a woman who has chosen to open them.

No one has pointed to elder care as an example of household "servitude." I'm wondering how many of the people here are going to quit their job to care for a parent with Alzheimer's.

It's odd to me that the only paid-exploitation we don't allow is that of a sex-worker. Wet nurse? OK. Surrogate mother? OK. Various off-the-books domestic work? Technically illegal, but widely tolerated. Fake sexual teasing/flirting/humiliating for money? Hey, it's a free country! But actual sexual contact for money is somehow over the line.

______

My take away from all this - including the 'tangent' - is that it's a good rule of thumb for a satisfying life to get your mind off of yourself once in a while, and not because you're paid to do it. I don't see anything wrong, necessarily, with hiring an au pair or other person to help around your household. But having some disposable income in a low-wage environment creates the temptation to think that having some money absolves you from having to be a human being like all others, whether that's in the form of taking time for your child, or just thinking clearly about your neighbors and your relationship to them. The more wealth you have, the sturdier the illusion, but an illusion it still is.

Jacob's post is about what we now call the middle class, vis a vis the classes below it. In that relation, the illusion is very flimsy indeed. The imagined gulf between the servee and the server is barely any distance at all. As a middle class person, when *your* number comes up, being suddenly all alone is the result of pretty bad planning, in more ways than one. Your interests were always bound up with those of your fellows - including people who seemed to be beneath you before. It's just a little late to do anything about it.

BTW, I was snorting before about parents 'off fulfilling themselves' not because I'm a paternalist who believes that women should be stuck with domestic drudgery (it's not always the woman, for one thing), nor because I think that a parent's personal life is over when they have a child. I was snorting because what the people I was describing are mostly engaged in is a kind of hollow, remorseless, solipsism. They aren't doing anything useful to anyone, including themselves (solipsism is very boring) - with the possible exception of paying money to the people who flatter their vanity.

OK, I posted my comment before I read sapient's latest. I notice I anticipated the 'paternalist' charge, but hit 'send' a moment too late.

And I was being sarcastic when I wrote 'who are we to judge?'. Seems that sapient has no trouble judging when he/she feels like it ('obsessive parenting').

although there's not much about corralling toddlers that can be heavily mechanized

Apparently, back in Ye Olde Colonial Times, busy moms with too many kids and not enough hands would swaddle up the infants and hang them on a peg on the wall.

When the kids were old enough to stand, they'd put them in what was more or less a barrel or butter-churn kind of thing. Their heads and upper body were free, but they couldn't walk anywhere (like, out the door or into the open hearth fireplace).

Yankee ingenuity.

More accurately, when did middle and working class become two different classes?

I'd say a more relevant question is, when were middle and working class *not* two different classes?

Best answer I have to that is post WWII (or, even during WWII and the run-up to WWII for folks not in the military), up until the mid-1980's or so.

I personally am not that interested in wading into the debate about nannies vs day care vs whatever. The fact is that in most families both parents either need to work, or would pay a very high cost for one parent not working. Some folks will pay that cost, some won't, and that's their decision.

Some won't even have that choice, and will leave their kids with family, neighbors, or (if the kids are old enough) on their own, latch-key style.

It ain't the world I grew up in, where dad went to work and that brought in enough $$$ for mom to stay at home.

If you really want to take that issue on, we need to have a larger discussion, one where we discuss dialing back our expectations as a society about what a "comfortable life" looks like.

When dad went to work and it was enough, there were six of us living in 1200 sf house on 1/8 acre lot with one bathroom. We had one car, used. We took a vacation about every other year, and it consisted of staying in a small cabin by a lake, or driving from NY down to GA to visit my dad's family.

That was a middle class lifestyle 50 years ago.

And yeah, I'm feeling more and more like grandpa Simpson every day.

You can't just talk about specific things like "day care or no day care" in isolation from their context.

The big issue for me in the whole servant / nanny / do you mow your own lawn or not debate is the degree to which our economy has moved away from making stuff, to a service economy.

Call me old school, but an economy that is, to a greater or lesser degree, based on providing convenience to either wealthy people or people who work so many hours they don't have time to do their own laundry is an economy that is, to that same degree, skating on thin ice.

Convenience as the "value" part of "value added" just seems kind of fragile to me.

It appears that jonnybuter was talking about a very specific set of people (which, from his original post on the topic, was not clear - at least to me). I don't know those people, or anyone like them. We're all largely products of our experiences. I would suggest, JB, that your experience with that set of people may have given you the impression that they are common (just the way I no doubt look around me at the people I know and think that's the world sometimes).

I don't think they're common. That sounds, to me, like a group of rich people, probably living in or very near a major city. I mean... how many people have the financial wherewithall to view working as something one does only b/c one wants to? Not too many.

I mean... gosh, there's a reason they have to pay us. I think my wife generally (though not at the moment) likes her job better than I like mine, but then I think she just likes work more than I do! :)

As far as folks making their children into their personal fulfillment

“Zeus, all you other gods, grant that this child, my son, may become, like me, pre-eminent among the Trojans, as strong and brave as me. Grant that he may rule Troy with strength. May people someday say, as he returns from war, ‘This man is far better than his father.’

Book VI, Iliad

One more thing about household employees/servants/whatever. There were several candidates we talked to who wanted to be paid under the table so they would have more take-home pay. We eliminated several possibilities by explaining that we would be withholding SS/Medicare tax from their paychecks and no, we wouldn't reconsider. The better/more experienced ones wanted withholding anyway, so that ended up being good.

Being a cook for a rich family would be degrading.

Odd; I'd think that would be a really decent job. Unless of course you don't like cooking.

It's probably best for me to now wax anecdotal about my many "crap jobs", and note which of them was worst.

-Worked at a marina, taking boats out of storage, spraying muriatic acid on the hulls to remove algae & scum, checking & repairing wiring, building boat lifts and trailers, putting boats in the water and delivering them, and pumping gas. This was one of my first jobs, and one of my favorites.

-Paperboy. In terms of "degrading" quotient, this was probably one of the worst. Absolutely one of the more boring jobs that anyone can have. Wake up early; fold papers, fold papers, fold papers; load up, ride around (or walk) and throw them on porches. Collect every once in a while. For a kid who was completely disinclined to hit others up for money, collecting was the worst. Particularly collecting from people who were only ever home at 7am on a Sunday, and who got pissed off that I woke them up, but never pissed off enough to leave me some cash in an envelope.

- Stockboy in a grocery store. Pretty damned boring, and I had to stay after at night, scrape the cutting blocks and do the dishes. The only redeeming grace was it was an Italian grocery, and Mario let me snack on his meatballs that he kept under the deli case.

- Worked in a paper factory. Highest paying job I had until I went professional, and one of the most tedious, boring, degrading things I've ever done. One of the worst parts was hearing the people I worked with stand around and bitch for entire shifts about how they were being worked far too hard for the measly wages (minimum there was over $7 an hour, in 1980, and it went up rapidly with skillset and then there was overtime) while shutting the line down if the operator had the gall to run it fast enough that they might have to shut up and work for a while. Needless to say, this experience was formative of my opinion of unions in general, however wrong that might be. This job paid for well over a year of college in the space of one summer.

- Lifeguarding during swim practice. Weird NCAA (or conference; I can't recall) rule required lifeguards at swim practice but didn't specify that the lifeguards be out of the water, so instead of scholarship I got that. In terms of discomfort: absolutely the most painful job ever. But I was going to be experiencing that discomfort whether or not I got paid for it, so that doesn't count.

-Grading papers. I tried to make that as interesting as possible, so I worked to understand the various approaches to getting the wrong answer and assigned partial credit to a rather heroic degree (depending on how much understanding of the material was exhibited). But to offset that, I hacked people mercilessly who obviously copied from each other. Overall, I enjoyed it. It's one of the few jobs I've ever had that I could do in the privacy of my own room, and that I could do a little better after an adult beverage or two.

-Aforementioned McDonald's work, in my hometown and at school. The at-school part was definitely worse because I didn't know anyone there; they had a high turnover rate in employees. The work wasn't so bad; the being coated with grease at the end of every shift was awful, and the having to deal with managers who thought that being at the top of that food chain made them someone so special that underlings could be treated like crap; that was the worst part.

- I worked at a fiberglass boat and van-top factory for a while, doing the kind of quality control that has people wondering why you're timing them. It was interesting in a so-this-is-how-they-do-it sense, but I got out of there as soon as I found something better.

- Worked in a mobile home factory building sidewalls. That was pretty cool at first but eventually I found new enthusiasm for finishing up college so that I wouldn't be doing that for a living. Pay was pretty decent, and would get better as the line moved along more quickly. But it was my dad's factory (his first business endeavor, which meant it failed fairly quickly), and so if I screwed up I heard about it at least twice.

-Working at a double-wide factory keeping everyone stocked. I don't think I actually got to swing a hammer on that job, even though I knew enough to. Worst part: unloading the insulation truck.

-At some point, and I don't recall when this was exactly, I was a courier for a downtown bank. Which involved running around to various branch offices and picking up envelopes of money, checks and coins for delivery.

-And at some other point, I worked for an advertising agency that was doing ads for a local boat-building company; my only job was to take one of the two vehicles they had that could tow boats and move the boats from the factory to the river. And I got to model. So, somewhere in a stack of paper products waiting to be recycled, there's a picture of a Sylvan boat with me behind the wheel, or with me skiing behind it, or with me loading it on a trailer. That job was probably the most fun I've ever had for pay, but not terribly remunerative.

-And I worked in an axle factory, putting leaf springs and brakes on freshly welded and tar-painted axles. The only really bad part about that job was getting the tar paint splashes off my skin & arm hair, and having to quit because my boss would not give me a day off to go interview for a job in Ft. Worth. But a month after that, I was making a decent starting engineer wage, working on a missile that became PAC-3. So the axle factory experience I look on with some fondness, because it marked the last time I had to work in a factory (so far).

I don't have any particular point to make with all of this, but Gary's comments to the effect that servitude constituted being in a job where you had no choices, or felt as if you had no choices, was what waited for me if I failed to graduate and become a professional. Given that I had to work right up until graduation day to avoid getting an incomplete on my senior project, I was really afraid that after four years of relatively hard brain-work, I would be stuck doing manual labor in a factory. I was completely out of money, and once I graduated I would start having to pay my student load.

Master has been replaced by Mister some time ago (btw, the same happened in many languages: senor, signor, Herr, gospodi, monsieur, mijnheer etc., all originally titles one would adress only a superior).
Servant is still used non-derogatory for employees of the state (Public servants). Serf on the other hand has to my knowledge no positive connotation at all.
Personnel is an interesting case. The German equivalent has highly different connotations depending on the context. It is used neutrally for certain groups of service employees and formally for employees in general (less for workers). But it is negatively connotated when applied to household employees and its use reeks of arrogance (in the sense of 'ignore him, he is just personnel').

So the axle factory experience I look on with some fondness

Any job you have when you are young can be both a crap job and one that you look on fondly and can exist as both simultaneously. My main takeaway from that point is that one should be very very careful about drawing conclusions about the nature of work and compensation from the experiences of one's youth.

Worst crap job for me was fast food, because it was tedious, boring, and worst of all, I wasn't good at it. Couldn't keep my mind on it, am not a particularly fast worker, couldn't get the hang of cooking burgers at the proper degree of done-ness.

If you want to be really, really unhappy at work, do something you're not particularly good at.

Plus, dogs would follow me home because I smelled like hamburger.

I was a janitor for a while after college and before I got into writing software. Cleaning toilets wasn't so bad (I didn't clean them with my hands, I had a scrub brush!) but shoveling the big wide sidewalks first thing in the morning after a blizzard was a drag.

For the record, being a cook for rich people is not a bad gig.

I do know one wealthy guy, a friend and colleague of my wife's, who has his own personal body man. It's kind of an affectation, he makes the guy do all kinds of seems-like-it-would-be-humiliating stuff like fetch his car, help him on with his jacket, run and fetch him a drink.

He's a kind of rich guy that wishes we had royalty here, and that he was a duke or something. They're not uncommon.

But to be perfectly honest, there's two sides to it, because the guy he hired would, for a variety of reasons, probably find it hard to land a better gig.

Not a job I could do for long, though.

Of all the crap jobs, pizza delivery boy is the best.

This is borne out by my extensive archival research in '70s and '80s porn flicks.

I would suggest, JB, that your experience with that set of people may have given you the impression that they are common...
I don't think they're common.

No, these aren't rich people - low six figure annual income. And I don't think they are as rare as you might think - perhaps not common, but not as rare as they have been. And initially, I wasn't quite generalizing these particular people anyway, just ranting. I suppose the general comment would be that 20-30 years ago, people with this sort of income would be much less likely to hire a live-in servant, and that the low wage/low tax/low inflation-deflation environment which goes a long way towards helping them have this option is probably not a good trade off for them (or their child) in long run. (And, yes, this is near a large city - living near a large city is hardly rare in this country!) And furthermore that the Servant Phenomenon is not limited to something as expensive as an au pair. Finally, I certainly wasn't criticizing you for what you and your family have chosen to do.

To me, the fallacy here is the idea that wealth is strictly relative; that is, if person A has more than person B, B is rich in comparison to A, no matter what the absolute amounts are. But of course that's false. The continuum of wealth is infinite only in one direction: up. There is a downward limit, which is zero. If I live under a bridge and you live in an old van in a parking lot, you are in better shape than I, but neither of us is in any real sense 'rich'. The fact that you can hire me to trim your toenails for the price of half a sandwich doesn't really improve your prospects (nor mine). Meanwhile, the wealth of the country continues to leech upwards. It's a con.

Thinking about personal services, there is a growing actual need for people to care for the elderly (including the elderly poor). I think the "expectation" that Jacob describes is just going to grow along with this phenomenon, so if there's a way to create a better attitude (and, yes, it is partly an attitude) about this work, I think that has to be the answer, not to deny the fact that a need for the work exists. Unfortunately, I don't see society becoming more egalitarian in terms of wealth anytime soon. Seeing the people who do this work not as "servants" but as people doing a job might be a first step towards figuring out how to make sure they're paid decently and treated fairly.

"Seeing the people who do this work not as 'servants' but as people doing a job might be a first step towards figuring out how to make sure they're paid decently and treated fairly."

A sick or elderly person having a personal health aide for survival is distinct from a healthy person having a personal household servant for convenience.

When people stop treating their au pairs and household servants as servants, it certainly would be appropriate to quit describing such employers as requiring servility.

I think a first step towards that would be giving everyone enough basic security so that few people have only one job or career option, and few would have to be trapped into being servile as a secretary/Administrative Assistant, warehouse stocker, retail store clerk, maid, janitor, or any job or category of jobs that they can't get out of and must keep to survive.

If it's their choice, great. But no one should be trapped; society should make sure they have the means, if they desire, to go to school/training to be able to get a more preferable job, and the support system to be able to do that.

That's (part of) how to fulfill the American Dream.

A sick or elderly person having a personal health aide for survival is distinct from a healthy person having a personal household servant for convenience.

Actually, not. Everyone needs care when they are a baby. Everyone needs a clean house and food to eat. Everyone needs care when they are old. Traditionally, the people who provided all of these services were called "wives" or "daughters" (or "daughters-in-law"), sometimes "sisters."

These days, after a bit of a societal struggle, women aren't doing this work exclusively. Sometimes men share in it (although, statistically, they don't do half). But frequently, when people are working outside the home, there's still work to be done in the home that can't easily be managed. That's when it's fine (I think) to hire people to help out. I don't see anything wrong with that.

I would love to live in a world where all of the yucky work would disappear, and everyone could pursue their dreams. Or at least live in a world where people would share the yucky work equally, and have plenty of time leftover to pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, I don't see it happening, especially by denying that the need for the work exists. The closest we can come is to pay people fairly. What "fairly" means, unfortunately, is still related to the other options the employee has. The number of options in our society seems to be getting smaller, not larger. I support any attempt to change that, but I don't know how to do it and I don't see it happening.

"That's when it's fine (I think) to hire people to help out. I don't see anything wrong with that."

Neither do I. My point is simply that people should take these jobs out of choice, in which case they are not forced into servitude. By definition.

What's wrong is that we have a society in which a huge number of people work jobs in which they're miserable, and which they feel trapped in, with no ability to choose another job, or line of work. That's servitude. That's what needs to change.

What's wrong is that we have a society in which having a goal of having most people being happy seems weird and utopian and hippiesh. We're an incredibly rich country, although less and less so, though poor choices, but the idea of orienting society towards increasing the gross national happiness, rather than the gross domestic product, shouldn't be seen as a crazy one.

What's wrong is that we have a society in which having a goal of having most people being happy seems weird and utopian and hippiesh.

This.

Thank you.

I completely agree, Gary.

Yes, what Gary said.

We need an attitude change. We had one - a big one - in the 1980s, and we need another one now. I don't think 30 years is too soon. The accurate observation that a rational concern for the general welfare is seen as 'hippyish' tells you a lot about how decayed, how decadent, the Reagan Revolution is at this point. The latter was a cultural revolution, and we need another one.

Harmony at last! I agree, jonnybuter. I just wish I knew how to help to bring it about. The future looks so dismal.

I think we bring it about by working hard to bring it about. By agitating, by politics, by word of mouth, by deed, by act, by essay, by speech, by elective office, by legislation, by invention, by persuasion and explanation and example, and the knowledge that all cultural changes take time.

That's terribly general, yes. But there are endless numbers of policy choices that can be made differently if a primary goal is the happiness of the citizenry, rather than how much we can increase the wealth of the top 5%.

There are lots of specific ideas. Tools.
Policy selection tools.

I could go on.

Hmm, next post idea?

I suppose I should write an introductory post, but I keep being not sure what to say.

Gary,

Here, at last.

Thinking about personal services, there is a growing actual need for people to care for the elderly (including the elderly poor).

People are going to need care, but if the expectation is that a proper middle-class lifestyle includes receiving that care in-home on a one-on-one basis from a personal employee, we are going to have serious problems. It is not physically, numerically possible to do that for more than a small fraction of the population.

russell's comment about building things rather than providing services was spot-on. Machines and products can be provided to the entire population and there's no particular limit on how many different types can be owned once they are being produced. Services can only be provided widely if it's done in very, very thin slices, which is fundamentally incompatible with the domestic worker model.

The idea that the domestic worker relationship can be made equitable on a permanent basis runs into the same problem. It is a fundamentally inequitable relationship. It may be that in specific cases it works out okay. But in general it's not possible for it to do so.

And full-time domestic workers, whatever you want to call them, will always be in a far weaker position with far fewer protections than other workers. The nature of the one-on-one relationship without outside supervision, without other managers to appeal to - entirely without the normal internal controls and processes that organizations evolve to protect employees. On top of which domestic employees are exempt from many labor laws, and on top of that many of them are illegal immigrants in no position to argue, and on top of that many of them are paid under the table and therefore reluctant to pursue labor claims.

There's no way of fixing most of that because of the nature of work in the home. Call them "servants", call them "maids", call them "domestic workers" or "beloved and treasured Persons of Toilet-Cleaning who we adore, worship, and revere", it doesn't make any difference.

And on the "yucky work" note - the amount of yucky work has been substantially diminished over the past century through the introduction of domestic machinery, improved products, and (often neglected) businesses that provide those services to many households in thin slices thanks to automation and technology that allow them to get the job done faster. Washing machines & dryers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, freezers, microwaves, but also fumigators, carpet cleaners, dry cleaners, daycare, etc.

Machines can't yet clean your toilet or take out the trash but the reduction in domestic workload from washing machines, dishwashers, and vacuum cleaners was a big factor in de-servantizing the middle-class life in the 20th century. And eventually the benefits of that automation were extended to nearly everyone - which is perfectly possible and in fact expected with machines, since they are durable and can be mass-produced with low labor inputs.

That's the direction we should be looking at. For the 19th time, I should be clear that I'm not saying that hiring a nanny makes you a bad person, just that it's a sign of a society with big problems, and - from the original context, way, way back - that the idea that it is essential to have a nanny rather than put your kids in daycare is ridiculous and unsupportable.

People are going to need care, but if the expectation is that a proper middle-class lifestyle includes receiving that care in-home on a one-on-one basis from a personal employee, we are going to have serious problems.

This is probably an area where a little public provision would go a long way, whether directly or in the form of vouchers or subsidies. (Child day care is another.) But that's another uphill struggle against entrenched positions.

"For the 19th time, I should be clear that I'm not saying that hiring a nanny makes you a bad person, just that it's a sign of a society with big problems"

And through all of this discussion I don't see a credible correlation between nany hiring and "a society with big problems". I swear I have read every comment and I just don't see the broader problem.

I see nannies being used as mommy replacements as a specific issue, nannies being treated unfairly as a specific issue, etc.

But I also see nannies who love their job and the children, that have great relationships with the parents, that are treated with the respect they deserve and that get paid a living, if only working class, wage.

But, I have never employed a nannie, or anything resembling a servant, so maybe that's why I am struggling to grasp the danger to society.

Jacob: "On top of which domestic employees are exempt from many labor laws, and on top of that many of them are illegal immigrants in no position to argue, and on top of that many of them are paid under the table and therefore reluctant to pursue labor claims."

To make an extremely niggling point about a comment I otherwise enthusiastically agree with, I'd put the illegal immigrants on the top, which is to say, the bottom rung of the daycare profession, those who are worst off.

"Machines can't yet clean your toilet"

You'd think inventing some tech for a better self-cleaning toilet wouldn't be that difficult in 2010, wouldn't you?

But I'm sure that sooner or later nanotechnology will be on the job!

(No, actually, kinda serious, but not counting on it anytime soon.)

Marty:

[...] And through all of this discussion I don't see a credible correlation between nany hiring and "a society with big problems". I swear I have read every comment and I just don't see the broader problem.

[...]

But, I have never employed a nannie, or anything resembling a servant, so maybe that's why I am struggling to grasp the danger to society.

Marty, if you reread Jacob's comments in sequence and context, you'll note that he earlier wrote:
[...] People are going to need care, but if the expectation is that a proper middle-class lifestyle includes receiving that care in-home on a one-on-one basis from a personal employee, we are going to have serious problems. It is not physically, numerically possible to do that for more than a small fraction of the population.
That is the "broader problem" beyond the issue of how any individual nannies are treated.

It applies equally to households looking for nannies as it does to eldercare.

There's nothing wrong with a family having a nanny.

There's a problem with everyone having a nanny, because everyone can't have a nanny, and therefore society would require an underclass to supply the nannys to the overclass that has the nannys.

Structuring our society so that it's dependent upon having a permanent underclass and overclass would be undesirable, I'm sure you'd agree?

Washing machines & dryers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, freezers, microwaves, but also fumigators, carpet cleaners, dry cleaners, etc

Yeah, but the vacuum cleaner usually needs someone to push it around. Judging from what I've read, that person is usually female. For example.

the idea that it is essential to have a nanny rather than put your kids in daycare is ridiculous and unsupportable.

Until you have two or three children, all in different day care places because of their age differences and you're the parent who has to leave from work early (and incur the wrath of your peers and bosses) in order pick them all up on time. At that point, it can be cheaper and more practical to have someone take care of them at home. Depends on the circumstances, and it's not demeaning or horrible to the nanny if the nanny gets paid a fair wage.

"Structuring our society so that it's dependent upon having a permanent underclass and overclass would be undesirable, I'm sure you'd agree?"

I would agree with this statement.

"Yeah, but the vacuum cleaner usually needs someone to push it around."

Heading away from that.

Ha ha. I forgot about that, Gary! Maybe cleaning the fridge would be a better example.

Anyway, not trying to start gender wars here, except that household "help" typically frees up time for women. That's why the home care work has a lesser status than, say, landscaping.

Harmony at last!

Yes, hooray for that!

At some point, maybe we'll have to decide that uniquely human skills, like care-giving, teaching (and thinking) have intrinsic monetary value. Or, for that matter, that human life does. The 'party of life' pays lip service to that idea, but its classical liberal governing viewpoint pays *real* service to the opposite: things are worth only what they're worth in a simple, direct market sense.

That is to say, we will have to develop values again.

the vacuum cleaner usually needs someone to push it around

Yeah, but have you tried sweeping your house with a push broom and beating the carpets on the line lately?

Me either.

that person is usually female

True, but at least the workload is substantially diminished and, relevant point, the need for servants is reduced.

Until you have two or three children, all in different day care places because of their age differences and you're the parent who has to leave from work early (and incur the wrath of your peers and bosses) in order pick them all up on time. At that point, it can be cheaper and more practical to have someone take care of them at home.

That is fair.

That is to say, we will have to develop values again.

I'll toast to that as well, since it's cocktail hour.

And yeah, Jacob. I'm happy we're not still beating the carpets (although I see that mine needs a good beating right now.)

Harmony at last!

Yes, hooray for that!

To reference another blog's tradition: comity!
Anyway, not trying to start gender wars here, except that household "help" typically frees up time for women. That's why the home care work has a lesser status than, say, landscaping.
Comity!

Comity gold.

Someone had to say it.

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
Comity tonight!

Hmmm.

What's wrong is that we have a society in which having a goal of having most people being happy seems weird and utopian and hippiesh.

It's a nice idea, but I haven't noticed that all that many people like being happy.

There's always something upsetting, frustrating, thwarting, and there are always people who are out to get you.

I've noticed, instead, that there are a not insignificant fraction of people who are happiest when they have something to bitch about. So: not sure how you'd even tell if you had most people being happy.

"Hmmm."

It's fair to say the Romans did not have a classless society.

"So: not sure how you'd even tell if you had most people being happy."

Respectfully, my links went into it in considerable detail, and I don't think it's a good idea for me to cut and paste even a small fraction of all that into a comment. If you're interested, I invite you to click through the links and read.

"It's a nice idea, but I haven't noticed that all that many people like being happy."

There's absolutely a huge subjective element, of course, and indeed, learning how to be happy is something a great many people need to do, and I'm working on it myself.

That is, specifically, on the elements of happiness that are purely internal to our thinking, rather than any external elements. There are a great many ways we make ourselves unhappy, a number of which can be unlearned.

A lot of Buddhism is about this, of course, if you look at the philosophical parts, and not the accreted religion. But so is a lot of modern cognitive therapy and theory.

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