May 2012

Our personal lives for hire

By Arlie Russell Hochschild
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As Americans struggle to survive and prosper in today’s shifting and far-flung economy, they find themselves tugged farther and farther away from the supportive embrace of family and community. Under these conditions, functions that used to be performed personally or “in house,” so to speak—such as finding a mate, bearing and raising children, holding a marriage together and taking care of the elderly—have been “outsourced” to for-profit businesses.

This is the landscape Arlie Russell Hochschild explores in a study that takes her from the office of a “love coach” in Southern California to a ritzy gated community near Minneapolis and from the baby mills of India that specialize in “wombs for rent” to sterile nursing homes in Massachusetts. She illustrates the pervasiveness of outsourcing by following the life cycle from courtship to birth to death and personalizes her account by comparing these modern customs with those she witnessed as a child while visiting her grandparents’ farm in Maine.

To a degree, this is a chronicle of people with too much money to spend. How else to explain the flourishing of such pricey but nonessential trades as Internet dating services, wedding planners, surrogate mothers, kiddie chauffeurs, potty trainers, birthday party producers, “nameologists” (who help couples find the “right names” for their babies), parenting evaluation services and “wantologists” (who aid the confused in distinguishing between what they think they want and what they really want)? But Hochschild gives the people who use these services—and those who offer them—their full say, allowing them to explain their actions in their own words. Whether one is convinced by their reasoning is another matter.

It is only near the end of the book that Hochschild makes it clear that she views profligate outsourcing as an unfortunate triumph of marketing over common sense and social needs. “It’s become common,” she says, “to hear that the market can do no wrong and the government—at least its civilian parts—can do no right, and to hear little mention of community at all. Curiously, many who press for a greater expansion of the free market, gutting of regulations, cuts in social services, are the same people who call for stronger family values. What’s invisible to them is how much market values distort family values.” In attempting to buy happiness perfectly packaged and off the shelf, Hochschild argues, “What escapes us is the process of getting there—and the appreciation we attach to the small details of it.”

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The Outsourced Self

The Outsourced Self

By Arlie Russell Hochschild
ISBN 9780805088892

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