Service Jobs and Democracy

A crew member cleans the wheels of an automobile at Eco Clean Auto Clean in Redwood City, Calif., in 2015. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
There’s nothing wrong with being a barre instructor or detailing cars. But we should be wary of an economy that creates these types of jobs instead of others.

Do you have good help? Are you good help? In the past week, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote about the rise of “wealth work,” the explosion of service jobs in which a larger share of Americans help their richest neighbors look and live better. Thompson writes that there is “something queasy about the emergence of a new underclass of urban servants.”

The article occasioned a slight back-and-forth between policy gurus on Twitter. Marco Rubio’s chief of staff, Mike Needham, sardonically observed, “We are going to be so proud to leave our children a nation of manicurists, massage therapists, and barre instructors.” This led to some tut-tutting by liberal pundits who believed that Needham was disrespecting service workers. One former member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers retorted, “Children—would you rather teach barre, give therapeutic massage, or assemble screens on a line all day?”

In turn this led Oren Cass, a former Romney adviser and author of The Once and Future Worker, to respond, “It’s remarkable, the instinct to defend a labor market drifting toward service work for the rich. As I keep saying, the left-of-center won’t be vindicator of workers’ interests, its platform will be built around upper-class priorities and redistribution.”

Cards on the table: I’m with Needham and Cass. There’s nothing wrong with being a barre instructor. There’s nothing wrong with detailing cars. But we should be wary of the social and political effects of an economy that encourages the creation of these types of jobs instead of others.

It’s often said that a powerful nostalgia afflicts our politics; that conservatives want to go back to the social mores of the 1950s and liberals want to go back to the union strength and tax rates of the same decade. I could even accuse myself on these terms. The fact is, almost every day I actually do find reasons to admire my grandparents, and sometimes envy them. They were part of America’s post-war middle class — really, an affluent proletariat. Like millions of families, they had a breadwinning father figure and a homemaker mother. This class was profoundly democratic and decent, and I find their cultural outlook still persuasive.

For this class, the “service” economy they accessed was mostly made up of established proprietors. Going out to eat was still a kind of luxury. The more-personal service economy was often an informal one led by teenagers (lawn-mowers, babysitters, fast-food workers) or other mothers who were just earning a little supplemental income, rather than making their livelihood at these occupations. The most intimate services of child care, laundry, and home maintenance were handled within the family, or with a little neighborly assistance provided gratis. They had a certain moral superiority both to the rich Manhattan urbanites who maintained domestic servants and the Southerners who, they believed, only had domestic servants because blacks were held down in such poverty. In some ways this affluent proletariat viewed itself as a kind of modern yeomanry — willing to serve the country in war, but anxious to live self-sufficiently and among equals.

Yes, there are ways to puncture the moral and economic underpinnings of this culture and self-regard. But on the whole that mid-century ethic is a profoundly democratic one. It values long-term investments in skill acquisition and rule-following. The continuing influence of that may explain why men such as Cass and Needham see something valuable — socially and politically — in those breadwinning jobs, and why they dread the rise of a gig economy that sells precariousness to workers as flexibility, all for the benefit of globalization’s big winners at the top. There is also probably a still-regnant popular discomfort with the rise of service work, even among the current “affluent proletariat” — a certain unwillingness and conflict about being in a position to hire help, but with few cultural scripts for knowing how to employ it ethically and responsibly. Thompson’s article notes that much service work has been depersonalized, to some degree, where the relationship between employer and employee is “now managed through an app.” In fact, this “appification” of the service economy should be seen for what it is, an attempt to circumnavigate the “queasiness” many Americans feel about the social stratification that the service economy is bringing back to American life.

There’s also the worry that the new service economy is a bad deal for middle-class and working-class men who are already in crisis. Being told you’re fired by an app seems like a recipe for alienation and discontent. The fact is, America’s trade, economic, and labor policies do shape the kind of work that is becoming available in America, and the work shapes the people who do it, their family life, and their politics.

Ask yourself whether the initial expansion in domestic service through an illicit economy has been good for the country. Was it good for elites to hire in fields where workers had so few rights vis-à-vis employers, workers who were often doubly vulnerable to exploitation because of their legal status? Was it good for the country that these elites had so much practice in getting ahead by bending the rules? I think the past decade or so has been instructive on this point.