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.Much of the reason that people fear the new service economy is that it, like the industrial economy before it, is emerging out of the breakdown of an earlier model. Because the millions of people fleeing the agricultural economy and seeking factory work were so desperate, and because the supply of willing labor was so large that factory wages were desperately low and factory working conditions were so horrible, factory work looked worse in Charles Dickens’ time than it looked later. As industrial workers adjusted to the new conditions, as the balance of supply and demand in the labor markets changed in favor of workers, and as society came to see this new form of economic organization as normal and natural, both conditions and attitudes changed.In the same way today, many service workers have less bargaining power because the new jobs aren’t always appearing as quickly as the old ones disappear. Wages for many workers in the service economy are low, they don’t have as much power over their working conditions and terms of employment as they would like, and for some there is a kind of stigma attached to these jobs.The way to change this isn’t to cling to the vanishing industrial economy. The robots are coming. 3D printing is coming. Global production is here to stay. Manufacturing isn’t going to become the basis for a mass middle class anymore than the family farm is going to once again provide a stable living for the majority of the American people. It is foolish and naive to think otherwise.Furthermore, the shift is a good thing not a bad thing. Human productivity is being multiplied by our increased ability to use machines to replace human labor. Just as we no longer need for 80 percent of the population to spend its entire life toiling to provide food, we no longer need for 40 percent of the workforce to toil in factories.If nostalgia and Malthusian panic weren’t such dominant emotional forces in the environmental movement, more greens could see clearly that the shift from manufacturing to services is a way to unlink economic growth from greater fuel consumption. An economy of ballet lessons and gourmet meals is less energy intensive than an economy based on dark Satanic mills. The shift to human capital and human services enabled by a strong information sector is a shift to a dramatically less carbon-intensive form of economic life.Working with and for people is not inherently degrading. Teachers and doctors work with people and are rightly respected for what they do. Hair stylists and chefs can be awesomely talented and some will end up extremely wealthy.Moreover, the new service economy is not going to be a revival of the old feudal system. There may well be nannies and butlers in the future, but they will be much better compensated and much more in demand than even the most loyal of the Downton Abbey crowd. A nanny who is learning to be a nutritionist and a gourmet cook has a much brighter future than Lady Mary’s lady’s maid.More than that, many of the new service workers are going to be internet-enabled workers who function more like professionals than like lackeys. There will be people who help you and your kids figure out where to go to college and how to get in. There will be job and life coaches who help you keep your skills up and manage your career path in an increasingly complex world. There will be many more music, dance and theater teachers and coaches than we have today. More people will work with athletic trainers and coaches. There will be more professional nutritionists who may double as personal shoppers and in some cases as chefs.It’s as impossible to predict today what new kinds of jobs and services will appear in the next 100 years as it would have been impossible to predict in 1860 what new industries and gadgets would appear in the 20th century. But appear they will.The most important thing to do now, for those who aren’t content with wringing their hands and moaning about how beautiful the old economic model was, is to shift government policy toward the creation of new jobs and the formation of new enterprises. We need to make it easier for millions of people to move beyond the collapsing institutions and careers of the old world, and to create the jobs and the businesses of a new and more humane economic order.[Image of Butler from Shutterstock]