Need a date? Log in to a dating service. Need to feed dinner guests? Call a caterer. Your kid is applying for college? Hire a counselor. Have a worry? Sign up with a therapist or life coach. Don’t do it yourself, buy it – whatever “it” is.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, the author of innovative, path-breaking books such as The Managed Heart, The Second Shift, and The Time Bind, has another one coming, The Outsourced Self, which she previewed in May 6’s New York Times (here). In the article, she points out the many personal goods and services that one can buy these days. And she worries that something is being sacrificed for the convenience and efficiency of the market, that by outsourcing we are losing a part of our selves and of our intimate ties.
My small contribution in this post is to add – as I often do in conversations with Arlie, who is a long-time friend and Berkeley colleague – a historical dimension. Outsourcing personal services is not new in this or even the last century. More striking still, Americans have in recent generations turned to insourcing critical family goods and services that we once outsourced.
From In to Out
Outsourcing is not new; Americans have been outsourcing important family activities since at least the 1800s. (When I refer to Americans or “we,” I largely mean the well-to-do, the ones who can afford to buy goods and services and the ones about whom Hochschild is concerned.) For example, Americans started in large numbers to buy mass-produced, “ready-made” clothing in the 19th century rather than having women make the family clothing. In the sheer scale of the industry that arose and in the changes in women’s everyday lives, this transition overshadows the contemporary ones.
Health services are another example. Medical experts have been around for millennia, but middle-class and eventually almost all Americans shifted from using home remedies and home nursing to buying professional treatment in the 19th and 20th centuries. Historians of health sometimes doubt that early doctors did much good. Still, by the 20th century, caring, knowing parents outsourced the healing of their ill children. Today parents who exercise home care for a seriously ill child in lieu of professional services face charges of child abuse. The growth of psychological services, all those therapists Hochschild mentions, is the expansion of medical expertise into mental health.
From Out to In
Strikingly, there are some tasks – intimate ones – that well-off families once outsourced but now largely handle themselves; these have been insourced.
A mundane example is cleaning the family’s dirty laundry. The 19th-century middle-class families that correspond to Hochschild’s 21st- century subjects (and readers) typically had servants, who either lived in or came in daily and who washed the laundry. Or such families employed laundry women who would pick up and deliver. By the early 20th century, however, middle-class women’s complaints about finding “good servants” were legion; working-class women preferred even tough factory jobs to being maids and washerwomen. That resistance, together with the arrival of the washing machine, led all but the richest families to insource laundry work. (At home, I do the folding.)
A most intimate example is nursing babies. In the early 19th-century, many middle-class mothers bought the services of wet nurses to feed their newborns. The history of breast-feeding is complex and cyclical (see this earlier post), but wet nursing no longer exists. One reason was experts’ insistence that mothers breast feeding was psychologically better for both mother and child. Now American middle-class women overwhelmingly spurn the wet nurse and the bottle for body-to-body feeding.
A final example is raising adolescents. In 18th-and early-19th-century America, the middling classes and the working class commonly shipped off their pre-teens to other families to work as farm hands, apprentices, or maids. The sending parents sometimes received cash for their child’s labor, sometimes another family’s child as a worker, and sometimes just figured that their child’s fortunes would be improved by leaving home. A side benefit, it has been noted, is that strangers could better discipline adolescents; occasionally, that turned out to be a brutal discipline. Around the middle of the 19th century, middle-class families shifted to insourcing adolescent-rearing. Historian Mary Ryan tied that change to the importance of schooling in a growing commercial economy. Aspiring families now kept especially their sons home. They outsourced the schooling itself to professional educators, but handled the domestication of teens themselves. (Many a modern parent might secretly wish that our custom was still to outsource adolescents.)
Efficiency and Costs
Economists will probably tell you that outsourcing – whether of clothing or of child-rearing – is more efficient. Experts can generally do a better job and at lower per-unit cost than families can. Economic growth provides more specialized market services at more affordable prices for more people. It’s all about expanding choice. After all, no one says that you have to hire a wedding planner.
Sociologists and psychologists worry about the unintended consequences of these efficiencies and choices, such as Hochschild’s concern about lost intimacy. (By the way, there is no substantial evidence that there has been greater isolation or lost intimacy in recent decades; see earlier post here.) A different concern is that expanded choice demands greater and more stressful cognitive work (e.g., here).
But here is my concern about outsourcing: In a world where people increasingly rely on the assistance of market services, people who cannot afford them fall behind. If getting into college increasingly depends on a paid college counselor, kids who have only the overworked public school counselor are disadvantaged. If managing old age increasingly depends on expert assistance to handle bewildering medical and financial issues, the ones who cannot afford the experts suffer. If a wedding that makes you and your family proud really needs a planner these days, the ones who cannot afford the service may wait to marry. It’s the inequalities of the new markets, not the self-doubts of the priveleged, that worry me.