01 November 2011

"No More Servants"

The Atlnatic | Megan McArdle | No More Servants

I've seen this topic crop up a couple of times now. McArdle, Kling, and Kling's commenters all give good reasons servants aren't more common. Many of the reasons of theirs I find most convincing boil down to: "we have servants, we just don't call it that." So you go out to eat more and order take-out/delivery and buy pre-made meals instead of having a cook; you have a landscaping company, not a gardener; a cleaning service, not a maid. It's more efficient this way for any number of reasons.

Fine. But I think this just pushes back a little rather than answer the question. There are still tasks we could hire out to companies like cleaning or landscaping services, but we don't. Why not?

Why can't I hire someone to go run errands for me for a couple of hours like I can hire someone to come around and clean for me? The only convincing explanation I've seen is that it takes as long to explain what you want done and monitor the assitant as it does to do it yourself.

But surely that can't last, right? At some point some combination of IT and poor people with a work ethic has got to add up. What tasks have simple instructions that I could specify with a form on a smart-phone? Those tasks are businesses waiting to happen.

Grocery shopping is one possibility, already partly in existence. (I wonder why this service is AFAIK always coupled to delivery. If I were a smaller grocery chain who didn't want to invest in the overhead of delivery trucks I would set up a system to allow people to order groceries and pay for the online, then swing by the store, grab their bags and go.) Why don't we see more valet parking?

PS As someone (Warren Meyer?) pointed out, seven out of eight of the reasons McArdle gives for not wanting to hire help could apply equally to businesses not wanting to hire more employees.


  1. Pretty much all the stuff you mentioned exists. Harris Teeter has the grocery thing: http://www.harristeeter.com/express_lane/express_lane.aspx

    There have been personal shopper/errand services for years (I remember first seeing a vinyl ad on the side of a car at least 10 if not 15+ years ago) Issue is, they've pretty much always been priced like you're hiring a servant for a few hours. I'm willing to bet a few well-worded ads on craigslist would get you someone for cheap though.

    For stuff like researching restaurants/contractors, making restaurant reservations, and calling customer service that can be done remotely, you can hire a "Virtual Assistant" (dude in India)

  2. I didn't know about Harris Teeter's thing. Thanks.

    I know the others exist. I'm wondering why they aren't more common.

    I think eventually everything you can either specify through a web form or could get from a short conversation with the concierge at a better metropolitan hotel will eventually be routinely handled by these sorts of service companies.

  3. One thing you have to strongly consider is the fact that what you consider as "servants" are simply luxury commodities. As you would like to believe, the worse the economy, the more people willing to work these "servitude" jobs would increase, but in all reality, they decrease quite rappidly. For instance, Valet Parking as you mention. Why don't you see it more? Well, think about it, Valet Parkers get paid similarly to waiters/waitress, and depend highly on tips. The payment to park a car usually offsets the cost of the business and often that money does not goto the Valet. When the economy gets bad, the tips get bad, and guess what, less people are willing to work on tips, if there aren't any. People aren't willing to pay for these type of services, because the money is not there. Within the elite and upper class, these services are far from missing, but in the middle class area, it is much less common to see. Just my two cents.