Feature

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

A sociologist looks at how wealthy Americans are outsourcing tasks that once defined an individual’s relationship to family and community.

(Metropolitan, $27)

“Rent-a-Granny, anyone?” said Nancy Connors in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. How about hiring a “wantologist” to help you identify what you really should be doing with your time and money? As sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild details in her “somewhat disturbing” book, affluent Americans have ever more ways to outsource the tasks that once defined an individual’s relationship to family, community, and the world at large. It’s easy to understand why many parents use nannies: They need to work. But every now and then, “a service comes along that stops us cold.” Does little Ashley also need a paid potty-training expert?

Sadly, that’s where the comedy ends for Hochschild, said Charlotte Allen in The Wall Street Journal. Having landed upon “the makings of a quasi-satirical commentary about a society bloated with prosperity,” this California sociologist instead chooses to spend most of the book scolding America. The rich are making themselves more soulless, apparently, and not supporting public spending that would allow others the same luxury. Isn’t it actually a good thing that our society is affluent enough to support the services Hochschild focuses on? said Derek Thompson in TheAtlantic.com. When we’re able to hire experts to address issues of love and self-esteem, we’ve clearly moved well beyond the baseline in the accepted hierarchy of human needs. 

To argue about policy implications is to miss Hochschild’s point, said Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times. Take her story about Maricel, a Filipino immigrant who works as a nanny for a Google software engineer. The employer assumes Maricel is a great caregiver because she comes from a family-oriented culture, when in fact Maricel was raised by a cruel mother and has worked so tirelessly that she barely knows her own children. Maricel is a great nanny because she’s lonely, and to point that out is simply “an act of mourning”—an effort by one author to begin tallying all the small compromises that “add up to a thinner, sadder life.”

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