Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tugging the Forelock: People Thought the Industrial Revolution Was Servile Too

From Walter Russell Mead:

Pundits across the spectrum were enraged this week by a consulting firm that teaches nannies to cook quinoa. The NYT published a piece Wednesday profiling Stephanie Johnson and Dan Yashiv, a couple who hired a “nanny consulting firm” to teach their nanny to cook more “refined” meals for their daughter. Matt Yglesias has a good roundup of the outraged reactions, and offers some thoughts about what’s fueling the rage (that he himself shares) about these kind of luxury service jobs:
A big problem here arises because this kind of service work strikes us as servile in a way that proper working class jobs on assembly lines or in factories isn’t. If you squint at it right, you can make the mark + marc saga look like a happy story. Instead of whining about “skills mismatch” and unemployment, here are Yashiv and Johnson acting like pro-social employers and investing in the skills of their workforce. Not only will little Erela Yashiv get her fancy dinners, but the nanny will be able to command a [higher] wage in future years now that she’s a super-fancy nanny instead of a regular old heat-up-the-box-of-mac-and-cheese nanny.
Yet I seriously doubt anyone sees it this way. In a factory context, you have kaizen. In a domestic employment context, you have obnoxious and fussy rich people.
The article doesn’t release the nanny’s salary, but if it’s anything comparable to what similarly situated people are making, she’s being well-compensated. And, as Yglesias points out, she’s learning new skills. So Yglesias must be right that people are offended by the apparent servility that these kind of service industries hint at, because there’s nothing much else there to take offense at. People fear that if these kind of service jobs become an increasingly important part of the American economy—as we’ve argued at length they will—we could be doomed to a future of kowtowing to the rich.

Those kind of fears have a long history. At the beginning of the industrial age, both the left and sentimentalists denounced factory work as servile and destructive, compared to the honest independence of the family farmer. The same factory system that pundits are now favorably contrasting to the evolving service economy was itself expected to result in permanent subservience. And just as those predictions didn’t come true, the wailing and gnashing of teeth about an economy centered around dog walkers and personal chefs and wedding planners will also turn out to be unjustified in retrospect.

In fact, what’s likely to happen in the information age is that services once reserved for a privileged few will increasingly be available for larger numbers of people. There will be more and less expensive personal chefs, for example, but more people than ever will be able to eat high class meals. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing, especially when you consider the appalling dullness and deadening conformity of those industrial jobs and social conditions that people are apparently so nostalgic for.

It is not the summit of human social organization to create an economy where millions of people spend their working lifetime making mechanical motions that a robot could replace. And serving people is not necessarily servile or demeaning.  Jobs that involve varied tasks and using the worker’s talent and social skills to enhance and enrich other lives are not bad lives....MORE