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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Is service work today worse than being a household servant?

Today's post was shared by Steven Greenhouse and comes from

At least one class of American workers is having a much harder time today than a decade ago, than during the Great Depression and than a century ago: servants.

The reason for this, surprisingly enough, is outsourcing. Let me explain.

Prosperous American families have adopted the same approach to wages for servants as big successful companies, hiring freelance outside contractors for all sorts of functions — from child care and handyman chores to gardening and cleaning work — to reduce costs.

Instead of live-in servants, who were common in prosperous U.S. households before World War II, better-off families now outsource the family cook, maid and nanny. It is part of a problem in developed countries around the globe that is gettingmoreattentionworldwide than in the U.S.

We are falling backward in America, back to the Gilded Age conditions of a century and more ago when a few fortunate souls grew fabulously rich while a quarter of families had to take in boarders to make ends meet. Only back then, elites gave their servants a better deal.

Thorstein Veblen, in his classic 1899 book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” observed that “the need of vicarious leisure, or conspicuous consumption of service, is a dominant incentive to the keeping of servants.” Nowadays, servants are just as important to elites, except that they are conspicuous in their competition to avoid paying servants decent wages.

In 1930, near the start of the Great Depression, 1 in...

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