The Corner

Economy & Business

Getting Snooty about Service Jobs

A crew member cleans the wheels of an automobile at Eco Clean Auto Clean in Redwood City, Calif., in 2015. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Michael Brendan Dougherty writes: “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.” The nation’s barre instructors and car detailers no doubt would express their gratitude to Michael for his affirmation, if only they knew how.

Question: Where is the evidence supporting the use of the word “instead” in that sentence?

It is likely that the alternative to working in a service job is unemployment or another service job rather than the “others” that Michael says he prefers. Lots of people say they prefer those jobs, too. But their revealed preferences say otherwise. If you want to work in a food-processing plant, Alaska awaits. Delta is ready when you are.

More to the point: “The economy” doesn’t create service jobs. Disposable income and a desire for more leisure time create service jobs. My grandparents raised chickens. I get my eggs from somebody else who raises chickens. Why? Because raising chickens is not a very good use of my time, and the other guy has really, really good eggs. There are a lot of people who have the opportunity to raise chickens. But, strangely, most of them prefer the grocery store.

Michael writes about his envy of his grandparents’ generation. “They were part of America’s post-war middle class,” he writes, “really, an affluent proletariat.” As I’ve pointed out before, the “proletariat” of that time was not really very affluent at all, and anybody who wants a 1959 standard of living can have one — cheap. You can buy yourself a 20-year-old Volvo for about two grand and have a better car than a millionaire had in the postwar golden years. You can buy a house typical of my grandparents’ generation for about $20,000 in a place like Liberal, Kansas, or Borger, Texas, where some of our affluent proletarian ancestors worked in carbon-black plants. They still do, in Borger, and other towns like that. In fact, there are jobs open at carbon-black plants right now. Get thee to Ponca City, Okla.

My grandparents, like Michael’s, lived in a very different America. They cut their own hair and made their own clothes, and they saved money on entertainment by spending their afternoons and evenings picking cotton and canning their own food. In their view, at the time, people who did otherwise were symptomatic of a “labor market drifting toward service work for the rich,” as Michael quotes Oren Cass telling the story. The difference between a service job in 1963 and a service job today is that our grandparents did not sneer at barbers for being barbers, or judge that they had failed in life because they weren’t down on the assembly line bolting bumpers on Buicks.

Why not cut your own hair? Why not make your own clothes? Why not grow your own food? Why not dig your own well and provide your own water? If the answers to those questions seems obvious, why is it so difficult to imagine that we who are radically wealthiest than our grandparents also consume services that were not common in the Eisenhower years or the Kennedy years?

The guy who details my car drives a Mercedes. He owns his own business and gives no indication that he feels victimized by his situation. If only he knew what he was missing! He could be plucking a chicken for his dinner! He could be a yeoman! The poor prole just doesn’t know any better.

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