Downton Abbey fans rejoice—butlers are making a comeback. The NYT reports on the “new domestics,” the growing body of butlers, cooks, estate managers, private security, maids, art advisors, and chiefs of staff employed by the wealthiest Americans. The really eye-popping part of the story is the salaries, which can get as high as $250,000 per year.Despite the high salaries, there’s still a lot of unease in America about the growth of these kinds of service jobs. To many, they suggest servility and cultural inequality. But the Times story quotes one estate manager’s take on that question:
“I have spreadsheets on each house,” she said, and she also oversees their detailed calendars. “I have a lot to say about a lot of things. I tell them where they’re going, at what time and who they’re meeting. I reconcile four of their credit cards, oversee staff in all the houses. I work my behind off, and I would walk through fire for them.”She recalled a friend protesting when she considered taking the job 10 years ago, and his warning to her, “You’re always going to be the help.”To which Donna replied, “Unless you own your own business, you will always be the help.”
The ingrained prejudice against service jobs in America—especially domestic ones—is partially rooted in the associations with the cultural baggage of a nobility system like the one portrayed Downton Abbey. We think butlers have less dignity than other kinds of workers, especially in the productive manufacturing work we associate with 1950s America. But with the automation of more and more fields, service jobs are becoming an increasingly important part of our economy.Does this mean that we’re stuck with a choice between joblessness and aristocratic tyranny? Not quite. For one thing, many jobs won’t be linked to particular households. There will be coaches and trainers and outside specialists of all sorts—think of tutors or personal trainers. For another, even those in low-level service jobs will have more opportunities for mobility that a maid in the 20th-century England ever had. The service economy is coming, but it won’t bring servility with it.