Friday, May 11, 2012

New Millennial Economics, Part Three

Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times

Over half of adult Americans live in a different state than their parents. We don’t have the intergenerational links that made village life possible in the past. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild sees this as a distinct loss, though not an unqualified one. The problem is, our needs for connection, aid, and nurturance don’t go away just because we leave the homestead. So we turn to the marketplace to fill the holes in our spirits.

Hochschild follows the arc of how humans form bonds, from courtship and marriage, to starting and raising a family, running a home, nursing the sick, and burying the dead. She combines interviews with a range of people who have paid money for these formerly intimate services, with statistics and social research. Then she clinches the sale with stories of trying to find market help for her maiden aunt in New England, from her home in California.

After all, Hochschild admits, she finds herself part of her own story. She lovingly remembers summers spent on her grandmother’s Maine farm, hoeing weeds and breaking clods, because never felt closer to her family than when they had that shared experience. But like many Americans, she followed the work. What remains of her family lives in New England, but she teaches in California. She’s forced to admit she lives the story on which she now reports.

Nor does Hochschild reflexively assume the commodification of our community needs is a bad thing, as some activists might. Your therapist, for instance, probably keeps abreast of new developments in psychology in a way village elders, witch doctors, or ministers can’t. Your marriage planner can spend time on bouquets and caterers that you, with a full-time job, can’t. Your mother’s nursing home... well. Enough said.

We have to admit, if we’re honest with ourselves, that we couldn’t do what we expect paid professionals to do, even if we wanted to. Our highly specialized economy does not leave us time to care for sick kin, teach our children at home, and grow our own food. The complexity we accept as the price of our quality of life has changed our skill sets. We don’t have the wherewithal to participate in the village commons.

Yet we never did these things for ourselves. We had parents, maiden aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends... The village commons was exactly that: the whole village in common. We knew that we could count on others to step into the gap when we became overwhelmed. Today’s mobile society, where we only see family on holidays, and don’t live where we work, doesn’t permit that kind of intimacy. Money creates a useful working substitute.

And Hochschild declares, some of these people are good at what they do. Take my favorite example, the “love coach” who helps women fine-tune their profiles for maximum return. This guy doesn’t have another job. He doesn’t have to hoe corn or split rails; he spends forty hours a week on just this. And he’s gotten it down to a science. To hear Hochschild pitch it, the $1500 this guy’s services cost (!) return more than their value to a buyer.

But for all that, we lose something when we trust our inmost secrets and needs to someone who wants to get paid. We depersonalize very powerful moments (Hochschild’s description of surrogacy in India strikes a particularly chilling note). And when we run out of money, or the person we pay moves on, we lose the network they offered us. That’s to say nothing of people who can’t afford to hire professional carers in the first place.

That’s my biggest concern, and one Hochschild approaches only obliquely. She suggests that one of the reasons many poor people postpone marriage, in just one example, because they think their ship will come in and they can have the Princess Diana ceremony she’s always wanted. I seriously fear this could create a two-tiered society, in which the egregiously rich can pay others to care, and the poor pound sand.

Hochschild examines the changes the market has imposed on our lives, not as she thinks they should be—though she doesn’t blush to admit she has an opinion—but as they are. And what she finds should set us to thinking about what we value. If money can buy us everything the old village commons gave us for free, should we care that it lacks any sense of shared heritage? Good question. You’ll have to make up your own mind on the answer.

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