Today’s average individual can rely on experts to complete normal tasks

In today’s world, more and more individuals are willing to offload certain tasks to “experts”:

In other words, there is no job too trivial to warrant not enlisting a professional to do it. The hired help has moved out of the mansion and into more modest homes, too. Across the country, an army of entrepreneurial “experts” have emerged, charging as much or as little as their local market will allow, and promoting their services with old-school flyers, slick websites and persuasive online ads. They are ready and willing to do those tasks we used to do ourselves or with the assistance of a neighbour—be it scooping up dog poop in the backyard or assembling Ikea furniture or changing light bulbs or programming the remote control.

If nothing is too minute to contract out, then no job is too important or personal either. In her new book, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, famed American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explores the implications of hiring strangers to carry out what has historically been considered sacred labour done solo or with the support of loved ones: finding a mate, planning a wedding, scattering ashes, assembling a photo album, having a baby, naming a baby, raising children, visiting elderly parents…

Adding to the allure of outsourcing is our growing fixation with specialization. While we pursue our career paths with zeal, other people are refining the art and science of baby-proofing a home or choosing the right clothes or teaching dogs not to bark. The thinking goes that it’s wisest to let the pros do what they do best—lest we mess up. “If you’re buying a car you want to do it efficiently, you want a pleasant experience, and you want the best price. That logic is creeping into our personal life,” says Hochschild. In her book, she tells the story of a father who insists on planning his child’s birthday party. “It backfired,” recalls Hochschild. “He tried to be a clown and nobody laughed. And a neighbour says, ‘Leave it to the experts. They know what five-year-olds think is funny.’ ”…

Outsourcing might not be an ideal answer, but many people would say it’s better than the alternative, which is to do nothing except continue to run ourselves ragged. So while we hire retirement home consultants and dog walkers, we might contemplate the future and how it could be better. Duxbury has given it some thought, and she suspects that her own daughter will have learned more than a thing or two about the pursuit of balance from watching her mother all these years. Chances are, Duxbury predicts, the next generation will actually pay for help more often than their parents—but not because of gruelling jobs and domestic duties. Rather, they will work less inside and outside the home in lieu of other, more fulfilling, ways to live life.

This sounds like a combination of two famous ideas from early sociologists. Emile Durkheim argued that modern society was marked by an increased division of labor and specialization. In this setting, individualism would grow even as individuals were more dependent on other specialists to do things like produce food, clothing, and other necessities. He contrasted this to village or small-town society where individuals could perform multiple tasks and there was less specialization. Also analyzing modern society, Max Weber argued that history would eventually lead to an iron cage of bureaucracy where it would be difficult for individuals and social organizations to change course.

If you put these two ideas together, the division of labor and the iron cage, you have what Hochschild is describing: a system where people with means feel like they have to outsource certain tasks so they can be true individuals and do what they want to do but this locks them into certain actions and an increased reliance on other people. In a quest to get more choices, adults have to constrain themselves by outsourcing some of their tasks.

How much of this outsourcing is done by free choice or is there a lot of pressure to outsource? Perhaps there is peer pressure from friends or people at work subtly or explicitly suggest that people need to focus there more.

It would also be interesting to trace the rising status of “experts,” not just traditional experts like scientists or clergy or technocrats, but service industry experts. For example, just how much status does an organizing expert have today?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s