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Is Downton Abbey the Future of the US Economy?

Two pieces this week offered a fascinating look into the future of American jobs. The Times profiled Jon Steinsson and Emi Nakamura, two up-and-coming economists who have taken “hiring help” to the extreme. In an effort to maximize the time they spend on tasks essential to their career, Steinsson and Nakamura, a couple, outsource many duties, chores, and activities to third parties:

Last year, the couple hired a personal chef. She drops off five healthful meals at the beginning of every week to reduce the time they spend cooking (they used to cook recreationally; now they’d rather spend that time with their son). They have also paid people to: build Ikea furniture for them (even though the service often costs more than the furniture itself); teach them how to use software programs and baby carriers; and load their CD collection onto their computers.

Steinsson and Nakamura aren’t the only ones looking to employ people in service jobs. While they seem to pay people for one-off tasks or on a part-time basis, the WSJ reports that demand for full-time live-in domestic help is growing rapidly, including for chefs, housekeepers, estate managers, and even maids and butlers. The return of butlers and maids is attention grabbing enough, but the story is full of many other eye-popping details. The pay, for instance, can rise as high as 200,000 dollars thousand a year for a butler, and some agencies say families have begun to build separate kitchens in their houses for the kitchen staff in order to maintain family privacy.

These Downton-esque luxuries may seen irrelevant to the wider trends deciding the future of American employment, but in fact they represent the growing class of service jobs that could become a significant part of our economy, especially if we find ways to facilitate the transition to a service-based economy. As manufacturing and clerical jobs decline, creating enough demand for service labor will push wages up to good levels. It is the relationship of supply and demand which is fundamentally behind the stagnant wages we see today. Figuring out how to change that will get living standards moving in the right direction again.

[Image of Butler from Shutterstock]

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  • Andrew Allison

    Well yes, of course “Downton Abbey” is the solution to underemployment. That’s why we must tax the rich into oblivion! Otherwise, those who live on the public dole might have to go to work. It’s extraordinary that, at least to my knowledge, nobody has connected the dots between societal well-being and “service” becoming a dirty word.

  • Anthony

    For some reason upon first sight, concept strikes me as back to the future while acknowledging WRM’s serious suggestions for economy in transition.

  • lukelea

    I think I predicted that servants would become the new status symbols several years ago. The more you an afford to hire and show-off to your peers the better.

    I find this development distressing in our American democracy. Apparently WSM and his minions think of it an opportunity for talent. Part of their neo-Anglican world view I would hazard.

    I hope I have got them all wrong.

  • Corlyss

    Lordy, I hope not! We’ll be treated to much tackier TV serials on it – Friends with baby sitters and personal trainers . . .

  • BobSykes

    This is one way to redistribute the economy’s output, and it was the usual way prior to the industrial revolution. It still exists in Amish country.

    But, what do you do with young black males? They are already excess baggage in our current economy. We now deal with them by segregating them and giving them welfare just so we don’t have to deal with them on a day to day basis. Servants have intimate contact with their employers (masters?) and that is not a role black males can perform.

    The other issue is that servants don’t make much money, nor do employees of the service businesses–eg MacDonalds, Macy’s, et al. So just how does the redistribution work? Latin America is one example

  • drkennethnoisewater

    To be fair, specialization is what capitalism is all about. A neurosurgeon may be able to tear down and rebuild an engine for fun, but far better economically for him to hire a mechanic for that and perform his specialty instead.

    • lukelea

      @drkennethnoisewater –

      To be fair, specialization is only part of what capitalism is about. It is also about capital — machinery, together with the knowledge of how to make it and use it , to increase human productivity, thus making servitude no longer a necessary component of human civilization.

      • drkennethnoisewater

        Machinery is a kind of specialization. In fact, it enables even further specialization of skills by commoditizing others, thus leaving labor free to take on tasks that can not yet be mechanized.

        The question then becomes, what happens when all labor has been commoditized by mechanization, after adequate “AI” and machine vision have been achieved?

        • MrJest

          We may well find out in the next couple lifetimes… in the not-too-distant future, you’ll likely have a machine that you’ll toss all your garbage into, and once a year pull out a new Mercedes. In the meantime, it will produce your food, clothing, energy, computers, furniture, etc.

          What will you do with your time then?? Lay around in the park and compose bad poetry? I think a lot of people (those not writing software for the nano systems) will voluntarily choose to do “service”; for social interaction if nothing else.

  • HRGuru

    The wealthy have always had this, it’s the degree to which these service jobs have moved to support the middle class that has changed. We employ a nanny, a maid, and have a handyman on speed dial. The key distinction is that they are all independent contractors/owners of their business. Self-employment is a different arrangement entirely than Downton.

    • ntw

      If you employ a nanny and a maid, sorry, but you aren’t “middle class” in my book.

      • HRGuru

        You have no idea how much daycare costs these days, do you? And the maid shows up once a week. We are double income but very much middle class.

    • Ed

      Yeah the middle classes haven’t had nannies since the Jim Crow era and they weren’t exactly the Mary Poppins variety.

      • HRGuru

  • David Nelson Black

    This isn’t fascinating, it’s infuriating. If you can afford to have someone build your furniture for you, why not just buy quality furniture. Why are people too dumb to answer this question being paid handsomely as economists and therefore able to afford these things. Doesn’t this scream of self-negating irony? It would seem they don’t understand the basics of economics (comparative advantage) if they want to pay a premium for IKEA.

  • juan ignacio camargo gonzalez

    This is actually good

  • Fenster Moop

    Seems to me it was the Victorian and Edwardian levels of inequality that permitted the wealthy the luxury of commanding the time and energy of multiple staff to support their lifestyles. Seems to me it is our growing inequality that is permitting our new rich to do the same. And yet the argument here is to call on the magic power of the market: “As manufacturing and clerical jobs decline, creating enough demand for service labor will push wages up to good levels.” Really? It sounds to me that this is turning the reality of the thing on its head–let’s all embrace what inequality permits since it will help level things out. Sometimes a power relation is just a power relation.

    • Kevin

      Agreed. You can only afford to pay a horde of full time servants if you earn vastly more than they do. This is pretty much the definition of income inequality. It seems likely to lead to social and political inequality. It might be unavoidable (though I hope not) and “efficient” but it is not a Good Thing.

    • HRGuru

      You really should tip better.

  • Jeff W.

    Two points: In the Scots-Irish culture I come from, it is viewed as lazy and wasteful to hire servants and disgraceful and degrading to be a servant. We were trying to create a culture of social equality here; but I suppose that doesn’t matter anymore.

    The second is that the U.S. used to earn its living by manufacturing. Now that we have lost our manufacturing, we really have no other good way to earn a living. We are attempting to do it by money-printing, but that will only work as long as the Saudis and the Chinese keep accepting our funny money. There is no way around this. After you lose your livelihood, you become poor. The U.S. is going to be poor, and some poor people will work as domestic help. It’s all a failure and a disgrace, and you can’t dress it up as progress.

    • MrJest

      I get your points, but I’m surprised nobody is even blinking at the single salary reported. Since there are only a handful of institutions that train formal butlers, they do indeed tend to START at between 80k and 100k annual pay. That’s pretty good money, no matter who you are.

      For another example mentioned but w/out salary, look up “estate manager” jobs – they are essentially “production control” positions for a large household; organizing schedules, paying bills, managing staff, ordering supplies, etc. These positions, too, routinely run to six figure salaries.

      The other “help” mentioned probably pull down only slightly lower rates, largely due to having multiple clients (well, dunno about the CD-copying guy). The chef, for example, drops off 5 pre-cooked meals. Presumably she spent maybe 6 – 8 hours preparing them, and likely charges several hundred dollars a week for the service. If she does this 5 – 6 days a week, she may well be in the six-figure range of income.

      That’s not demeaning; that’s entrepreneurship.

  • Ed

    Well once the safety net is stretched to the breaking point the bourgeoisie and above will regain their servants at a reasonable cost.

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