‘Ghostwritten Lives’: What Happens When We Outsource Ourselves

What happens when we outsource our personal lives to paid workers? Can money buy love? And where do we draw the line between what we pay for, and what is too intimate to ask others to do? Arlie Hochschild has made these questions her life’s work, writes Jo Case.

In the world of the double income household, we’re increasingly paying strangers to take care of the personal aspects of our lives. Services that were once performed for free, by family members – like childcare, cleaning, cooking and care of the elderly – have been routinely outsourced to paid workers for decades, as two-parent working families have become the norm.

And the categories of paid service are growing. There are dating consultants (paid to manage and advise on internet dating), life coaches, wedding and party planners, and even ‘wantologists’, who will tell you, for a fee, what you really want – as opposed to what you think you want.

‘The twin side of market liberation of women’

‘We’re being invited into living ghostwritten lives,’ says Arlie Hochschild, a California-based sociologist who has been looking at the commercialisation of our intimate lives for decades.

Described as ‘one of the leading feminist sociologists of the last 30 years’, Hochschild delves deeply into the effects of the feminist revolution. She is especially good on the aftermath of women’s mass entry into the workforce; she coined the phrase ‘the second shift’ for the phenomenon of women working two jobs, at work and at home.

told the Guardian

Wedding planners, dog walkers and wantologists

In her new book, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, Hochschild looks at the various ways private life is packaged as expertise and sold back to overworked Americans.

Some of her subjects are decidedly middle-class. The wedding planner whose job includes making a reluctant groom want to be part of the wedding and finding a ‘theme’ to expensively illustrate the couple’s love. The man who hires ‘Family360’, a parenting-evaluation service run by a management consulting firm, to ensure he’s being a good dad. The couple whose shared therapist ‘bookends’ their marriage.

Her interviews uncover the nuances, benefits and imperfections of these paid arrangements. One question that interests her is that of where we draw the line. What are we happy to pay someone else to do and what do we consider too intimate to outsource? The answers vary according to the person. One man, Michael, pays a dog-walker during the week but is appalled when he sees dog-walkers working weekends. ‘Why do people even have dogs if they can’t manage to walk them on Saturdays? Or Sundays?’ At the extreme of outsourcing, one woman believes ‘anything you pay for is better’, and that ‘friends and family can’t help each other much’. She tells Hochschild that ‘Frankly, if a friend can’t listen in a skilled way or stop herself from loading you down with her issues, the biggest gift she could give you is money to hire a psychotherapist.’

Talking to the carers: surrogates, nannies and maids

But Hochschild is also interested in the other side of those paid care relationships, reaching across the gap in class and culture to talk to the carers themselves. What does it feel like to carry a surrogate child, in exchange for a year’s salary? Or to leave your own children to take care of other people’s, for money? She finds that, sometimes, the love and care that workers bestow on their charges is substituted from the lives of their own families.

In 2002, Hochschild co-edited a book with Barbara Ehrenreich, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, in which she looked at the experience of Filipino nannies.

She writes that domestic workers originally from the Philippines average $176 per month in their home country, often as teachers, nurses and administrative and clerical workers. By working as nannies, maids and care-service workers, they can earn $200 a month in Singapore, $410 a month in Hong Kong, $700 a month in Italy, or $1400 a month in Los Angeles.

The enormous wage gap between the developing and developed worlds provides a tantalising incentive for women to work overseas. An estimated 30 per cent of Filipino children live in households where at least one parent is overseas. The Philippines is now facing rising rates of school failure, depression and petty crime among the children left behind; the government is urging mothers of young children to stay home. But with the economic climate unaltered, it’s to no avail.

Buying ‘traditional family care’

One Filipina nanny featured in Global Woman, Rowena, earns $750 a month in the US; her own children live with her parents and twelve other family members (eight of them children whose mothers are working overseas). Rowena pays a local nanny to take care of them; in turn, the nanny leaves her own son with her 80-year-old mother during the day. Rowena sends home $400 a month for her children’s food, clothes and schooling, and $50 a month to the nanny.

In The Outsourced Self, Hochschild talks to the delighted employers of Filipina nanny Marciel, who believe that the patient, devoted love their daughter gets is a product of the traditional family values of the third world.

‘In the Philippines, they put family and community first. They all live in the same village their ancestors lived in. They carry on its traditions and help each other. They aren’t going nuts chasing the almighty dollar the way we Americans do. They really live their family values, and community spirit. That’s why Marciel is so relaxed and loving with Clare. It’s in her bones.’

In fact, Marciel says she gives Clare the love she can’t give her own children back home – and her upbringing was far from the one her employers imagine. Brought up as the second of seven children, to a cold mother who outsourced her to a neighbour’s care, Marciel claims Oprah as the guru who has taught her to be more loving and communicative.

‘Before, in the Philippines, I was so busy and had so little time for my children,’ says Marciel. ‘I’m a better mother with this baby girl here in America.’

As Hochschild clearly demonstrates, the fate of women in the developed and developing world are more closely linked than we might imagine, with mixed results – and economic solutions can have grave emotional consequences.

‘The unforgiving demands of the American workplace impose penalties that reach far beyond the American home.’

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