Resurrecting Domestic Service Extremes, aka NYTimes Style Pieces Strike Again

So this article by reporter Caroline Tell has been making the rounds. In it, Tell details the plight of really rich New Yorkers who have a nanny who cooks normal American food I suppose, or heaven forbid, boxed mac and cheese, and they want their five year old to develop a wider palate. In steps a consulting service to teach the nanny how to cook this wider range of menu options. I mean I like a wide variety of foods, but I’m pretty sure at five I ate whatever was put in front of me. The rule was you had to try everything on the plate just once. If you didn’t try, you got stuck sitting at the dinner table. True story, my brother got to sit at the table for over an hour after the rest of us had finished one night because he wouldn’t try something. Mom won that one. And when I got older, if I didn’t like it, I could go make something else. Or cook for everyone if I was going to be really picky about it. My sister tells me I like weird foods–quinoa included–and I do things like make brown rice pudding on a whim. Yet, I like boxed mac and cheese too, and pizza is not something I avoid. At any rate, the article is interesting beyond documenting the snobbery inherent in food choices. I mean clearly embedded in the idea of giving a five year old a refined palate is the notion that only those with refined palates are truly worthy of the good things in life. Boxed mac and cheese is soooo declasse, and really, we shouldn’t let our privileged five year olds anywhere near the stuff. It might give them working class tastes, or something like that.

No, the other interesting thing that both Matt Yglesias and Allison Benedikt note is what this kind of consultant service says about our service culture and the new forms of domestic service that drive the twenty-first century economy. The nanny is at the front line of the resurrection of domestic servants in this country. Sure, the really rich hire a broad range of people providing services–personal trainer, personal chef, personal shopper, life coach, therapist, housekeeper, hairstylist, etc. (I’m sure I’ve missed something)–but the nanny is the one that seems to produce the most anxiety. As the person in charge of the children, the nanny is responsible not for just making sure the kids end the day fed, clothed, and in one piece. Nope, the nanny is in fact in charge of the future paths of the really rich people who have had the kids to begin with. Thus, the nanny has to be better than a mere caregiver. I’m honestly surprised the article didn’t list speaking two additional languages, a BA in early childhood education, EMS training, in addition to the culinary skills as necessary requirements. Domestic servants faded from our economic systems as home machinery replaced some skills sets and as other kinds of jobs provided people with better wages, better hours, better job security, and more job advancement. As Yglesias argues:

 It’s obvious that in the future manufactured goods will increasingly be produced by machines. It’s also pretty clear that if 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. The middle class kids go to day care. The rich kids have nannies. The really rich kids have nannies and nanny consultants. There’s a sort of infinitely elaborate hierarchy of personal services one could take advantage of in life were one to have limitless quantities of money.

And 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.

As our society becomes ever more divided, expect to see more and more domestic services jobs, and expect jobs that traditionally have been considered professional jobs, such as teaching, take on the hues of this kind of attitude towards service work. After all, if the really rich can simply train their nanny to cook a wide range of foods–by the way a lot of which is considered working class food in their country of origin–why can’t they demand that their kids high school teachers have additional training in something equally esoteric. The new economy is the old one. Again.


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