A wealthy Manhattanite couple feared that their 5-year-old child, Erela, was not receiving a sufficiently refined palate from her hired nanny, who, being “from Wisconsin, does not always know the difference between quinoa and couscous.” So they hired a new service that trains nannies of the well-to-do in the shopping and food preparation that their employers would prefer. Organic? Locally sourced? Bringing styles in from South Asia and Portland alike? marc&mark will walk your nanny through the Whole Foods aisles and whip the less cultured into shape. In this instance, the mother “wanted her daughter to adopt a more refined and global palate, whether it’s a gluten-free kale salad or falafel made from organic chickpeas.”
In a certain corner of the Internet, near-Marxist rage and resentment at the TriBeCa couple and their perhaps even more distastefully disconnected profiler seethed forth. Yet Matt Yglesias of Slate swung into action with the seeming ultimate #SlatePitch: defending the system of hiring professional chefs to train the nannies you pay to take care of your children so you don’t have to bother. Though he did fear the mob enough to hedge himself: “Like every sensible denizen of the Internet, I find myself appalled by Caroline Tell’s article about how Dan Yashiv and Stephanie Johnson hired a consulting firm to instruct their nanny in how to cook fancier food.”
Yglesias argued that “But beyond cringing, we really ought to think a bit about the future of work and the future of the economy.” With a manufacturing sector that increasingly could be occupied by automated machines instead of unionized workers, and income inequality at peak levels that show no signs of peaking, chefs training nannies looks an awful lot like the future of the workforce:
[I]f you compare rich people in developed countries to middle class people in developed countries, the rich people don’t consume vastly larger quantities of manufactured goods than the middle class people do. Instead the rich people consume more and fancier services [emphasis original].
Indeed, Yglesias sees a silver lining to the Times story, that the parents are actually investing in the skills of their workforce, giving their Wisconsin nanny a chance to command a higher wage once she moves on from their TriBeCa digs. We can’t see that silver lining because we see personal service as essentially servile, and uncomfortably undemocratic.
Walter Russell Mead weighed in over the weekend, pointing out that “People Thought the Industrial Revolution Was Servile Too.” Mead says, “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 work being held up as today’s good, honest labor from a time quickly slipping by. It is worth remembering that the original Luddites were artisans feeling threatened by dehumanizing machinery, and when Henry Ford introduced the modern assembly line, his long-time factory workers simply walked out at the prospect of such degrading and monotonous work. Matt Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft is essential reading for those interested in these issues.
Yglesias and Mead are right to dispel us of any overly sentimental attachments to assembly-line work. In fact, as the 20th century was marked by unparalleled human scientific, material, and medicinal progress, which we shouldn’t dispute, it was also a century driven by an impoverished theory of work. Frederick Taylor’s theories of “scientific management” pervaded, motivated by a vision of a few expert managers who could move human laborers around in the most optimal fashion, sucking as much intellectual work up the chain of command as possible and hollowing out the conception of the laborer to a machine that had to eat. Similar ideas infected more white-collar work as well, as the idea of a “manager” was invented and tasked with turning the product of human endeavors into spreadsheet results.
With all the disruption technologies have brought to our economy, we may have a chance to build the 21st century along more humane understandings of labor and productivity. If we do, it will be based on an a conception of people that accounts for human potentiality and organizes us to pursue common endeavors, not just play our part in the machine.
The service sector will very likely be a bigger part of our workforce going forward, but it shouldn’t be one based on a Style piece. As Hayes noted, for an article ostensibly about nannies, there was one person’s voice very conspicuously missing.