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Purchasing the personal
Living and loving in a commodified world
Between sappy Hallmark cards and cheeky messages etched on candy hearts, the upcoming Valentine’s Day holiday has a way of turning love into a commodity. But most of us can rest assured that the intimacy of our actual love lives is not up for sale.
Or can we? According to author Arlie Hochschild, personal moments of love — and sorrow — are increasingly being performed by paid employees. Singing a bedtime lullaby to a sleepy child, sitting by a parent's bedside as they take their last breaths, and, yes, finding a romantic match with whom to spend a lifetime — these are just a few of the intimate services that we increasingly outsource to others.
In a recent talk sponsored by the Clayman Institute, Hochschild discussed her latest book, "The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times." Hochschild, a sociologist, drew on hundreds of interviews to explore how individuals, couples, and families navigate the commercialization of intimate life. The book sheds light on the ways a marketized way of thinking has shaped strategies for answering the ever-increasing time crunch and emotional wrench of modern life.
In 1989, Hochschild's best-selling book “The Second Shift” captured the public imagination by meticulously cataloging the "double day" of labor that working wives and mothers performed at home. This labor included such domestic and emotional work as childcare, housecleaning, and elder care. Now, more than two decades later, women make up half of the American workforce. Where then, can they turn for help with the various tasks that "The Second Shift" identified? Not, notes Hochschild, to the progressive government policies enjoyed by their Norwegian or Swedish counterparts, such as year-long parent leaves or compensation for care to family members. And not to neighborly helping hands from a community of yesteryear. As "The Outsourced Self" documents, the main place to which women — and men — are now urged to turn is to market services.
Some such services we need, Hochschild notes, but the market is a double-edged sword. Services meet our needs but also create needs. Services save us time but also lock us into long workdays in order to continually pay for them. And while they give us a chance to relate to loved ones, they can — despite the intentions of everyone involved — also remove us from some of the ways that we say to each other “I care.”
From the engaged couple who hired a wedding planner to “care about the planning,” to the parents who brought in an expert to childproof their home, to the short-tempered executive who hired an assistant to delicately manage demanding clients, “The Outsourced Self” does not simply catalog ways that the personal arena can be bought and sold. Rather, with Hochschild’s characteristic observation and inviting storytelling, the book offers rich accounts of how individuals manufacture and maintain intimacy in their relationships even as the pace of life quickens and demands multiply.
Several factors drive us to see outsourcing as a solution to our increasingly busy lives, explained Hochschild. A minimum wage that has not kept pace with inflation contributes to longer working hours. This trend, in addition to the erosion of social services, undermines the ability of families to care for themselves. American ideals of individualism and self-sufficiency spur anxiety. That angst drives people to look for solutions, and often market ones are the most visible.
Hochschild relayed the story of Evan, a love coach for hire, and his client, Grace. Evan offers a comprehensive service that manages every aspect of Grace’s online dating and for the most part she solicited his help. But when it came to Evan sifting through Grace’s potential dates to help pick out the most promising matches, Grace explained that she was “the only one who can tell who is and isn’t promising” as a future partner. She wanted to be able to tell her partner, once they were together, “I chose you myself.”
Hochschild asked how people, couples, and families decide what tasks to pay for and what to do themselves. She found that within the jumble of outsourced and non-outsourced tasks, there are often emotional strategies to keep “personal life personal.”
This is where Grace drew a line between attachment and detachment. The act of selecting a potential mate was symbolic for Grace in that it protected her conceptions of intimacy and allowed her to fulfill her expectations of bonding and attachment in the depersonalized process of outsourced dating.
It is in this context that Hochschild asked how people, couples, and families decide what tasks to pay for and what to do themselves. She found that within the jumble of outsourced and non-outsourced tasks, there are often emotional strategies to keep “personal life personal.” Protecting weekends, befriending caregivers, taking credit for tasks done by another in order to manage impressions — according to Hochschild, these strategies indicate a need to balance expectations of relational closeness with the decision to outsource emotional work.
“I’m interested in how people draw lines in their lives,” Hochschild said, “lines that reveal the marketization of our lives, thought patterns, and the actions that follow. These lines aren’t already there, we do them.”
Viable alternatives to outsourcing often counter the myth of independence and complete self-sufficiency. As Hochschild urged, “this means organizing with friends, colleagues, and communities to intentionally question our ownership sensibility and brainstorm other options.” As a successful example, Hochschild pointed to “resilience circles” — small community-based groups that come together to increase individual security via mutual aid, social action, and community support. These types of alternatives, Hochschild hoped, not only benefit the members directly but also revitalize communities, revalue public provision, and inspire creativity and connection where isolation, exhaustion, and cynicism often exist.
At times, Hochschild seemed to wane nostalgic for a past that’s less marketized, but she also recognized the long history of outsourcing and its fraught cultural expression. For instance, Hochschild explained that in early twentieth-century America, ministers and doctors warned against mothers hiring wet nurses. These nurses were often poor immigrants who were either denigrated along with the mothers who hired them, or “praised as an alternative to the worrisome new baby formulas just going on sale.” Nowadays, baby formula is widely accepted while other aspects of childrearing done by caregivers other than biological mothers are met with skepticism and apprehension.
Industrialization and technological advancements have allowed for the outsourcing of a huge portion of daily living — from agriculture and food production to clothing, education, and healthcare. Hochschild is particularly interested in the implications for the domestic arena, an area still widely associated with women and femininity. Hopefully, as these tasks are increasingly ‘outsourced’ to husbands, dads, brothers, and sons, assumptions about gender and caregiving will continue to evolve. However, seeking only market solutions is a mixed bag, Hochschild warned, with the potential to make solutions available only to those who can afford to purchase them.
Regardless of one’s opinion on outsourcing and the commodification of our lives, accepting Hochschild’s invitation to contemplate where we want a marketized approach — and where we do not — is something we all must do for ourselves.
Arlie Hochschild is professor emerita at the University of California at Berkeley. She is a bestselling author and a renowned scholar in the fields of sociology of culture and emotion. She is the author of numerous books, including "The Managed Heart," "The Second Shift," "The Time Bind," and "The Outsourced Self."
Sharon Jank is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. She is a member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team.