The New Servants

David Trammel's picture

I thought this article had an interesting take on how Uber and other gig economy companies are creating a new class of worker/servants.

The Servant Economy - Ten years after Uber inaugurated a new era for Silicon Valley, we checked back in on 105 on-demand businesses.

"The inequalities of capitalist economies are not exactly news. As my colleague Esther Bloom pointed out, “For centuries, a woman’s social status was clear-cut: either she had a maid or she was one.” Domestic servants—to walk the dog, do the laundry, clean the house, get groceries—were a fixture of life in America well into the 20th century. In the short-lived narrowing of economic fortunes wrapped around the Second World War that created what Americans think of as “the middle class,” servants became far less common, even as dual-income families became more the norm and the hours Americans worked lengthened.

What the combined efforts of the Uber-for-X companies created is a new form of servant, one distributed through complex markets to thousands of different people. It was Uber, after all, that launched with the idea of becoming “everyone’s private driver,” a chauffeur for all.

An unkind summary, then, of the past half decade of the consumer internet: Venture capitalists have subsidized the creation of platforms for low-paying work that deliver on-demand servant services to rich people, while subjecting all parties to increased surveillance."


I've never taken an Uber, though my step brother works for them and is in Chicago on a reoccuring basis driving there for them. I have taken taxis before. Has anyone here worked in the gig economy?

ClareBroommaker's picture

I don't have a smart phone, so I do not participate in any of those phone-distributed jobs that the article talks about, but I do work in other people's homes, to some degree at their beck and call, and never knowing how much work I will have. I tutor and provide detailed homework help.

Once, there was a kid who only needed occasional help with math and literature. Poor kid had a parent who tried to control every detail of his school & homework life to such a babifying degree. She also expected him to get top grades, and as I found out, she was willing to hire people to do his work for him in order to get those grades. I declined writing his essays for him (not his request but his mother's). I declined dictating all the answers for him to simply write down. This family had previously lived where they were upper class and could very cheaply hire almost any kind of worker, so the parent seemed disgusted that I did not agree. When I did help with his homework on an infrequent, on-call basis, she would pay me in cash, literally throwing the money to the floor in front of me! The message seemed to be, "grovel, lowly one, grovel." Once, after the kid failed to get into our only prestigious public high school, she called me to ask who to bribe. I would not have minded continuing to work with the kid, but I was not hard up enough to grovel and to help them cheat their way though obstacles. I think this woman enjoyed the opportunity to hold herself over another person as much as she cared about getting her son help. Well, heck, even that is an exaggeration, as she did not want her child to be particularly knowledgeable or skillful. She didn't want real help for him; she just wanted the appearance of accomplishment. She just wanted him to be privileged, to get A's and admission to the best schools around.

In another case, a mom told me that her 10 year old daughter would need help over a weekend, so could I come for two and a half hours on Saturday at 3p.m.? When I showed up on Saturday, Mom asked if I minded if she left for a while. I did not mind, I knew what to do in emergency and I knew there was a lot of homework to go through. As mom was headed out the door, I told the girl to get out her work and she started screaming and wailing, "Aaaaaeeeee! Mom, you said I didn't have to do any work! Aaaaaaaaaeeeeee!" Mom asked me to please just play with her daughter. Turns out I had been called in to babysit, not to tutor. Good grief. I did it, though, because it was also an opportunity to build up a more relaxed relationship with the child. Again, I think there was an assumption that I _had_ to do whatever the parent's whim was because I am of a lower, needy position.

Similar to the way Uber takes a cut of its drivers' earnings, there are tons of tutoring companies out there that take a huge cut off its working tutors. I saw a list of such companies that the state contracts with in my region. The companies are charging the state $400 and $600 per hour, paying tutors 2.5-10% of that. Have I had clients that prefer to pay me directly rather than have the state pay for the ineffective tutors they've found assigned to their children? Yes, I have. So, yes, some of these tutoring companies are real leeches.

So that's part of my experience with the gig economy. In a way, it is similar to the day-worker, temp job contracting. I've done that, too, but never was hired out to individuals rather than companies.

Working in education I've seen these kinds of tutoring situations, but managed to avoid them myself. I've considered the possibility of doing some work for the new crop of online tutoring platforms, but hope to avoid them. They all seem to make one or another kind of unreasonable demand.

Is it just me or do others feel guilty at hiring a domestic cleaner? Or maybe the guilt is a UK thing? With two adults in the family working full time, it just seems to make sense to hire someone to do the basics each week. I know from social media that many women have cleaners, but no-one seems to admit it in real life.

Serinde's picture

Guilt is a funny thing. Perhaps it's a very particular mind set in the Anglo-sphere because of our histories (I'm in the UK). I think we confuse providing a service with being a servant, or worse, being a slave. These are clean different things. In my work, I provide a service that authors appreciate and I can negotiate my fees according to the task. Even servants traditionally were able to negotiate their annual hire. What no one would wish to be is a slave, without volition.

Now, I can turn my hand to most things, but I'll be the first to admit I don't do them either very competently or expeditiously. There are a lot are folk around here, though, who really know how to do all manner of things. Rooms are painted, curtains sewn, bikes given their annual servicing in a fraction of the time and to a much higher standard. Yes, I'm prepared to pay for those services. What's so strange about that?

A professional is worthy of his/her hire. I would employ a cleaner like a shot if I could afford one -- the job would be done much better and faster. Actually, it would get done, and I could concentrate on the things that I'm good at. Does this mean cleaning is somehow beneath me? No. It's a recognition that each skill should be honoured.

And you are right, ChristineS, it does make sense with two working adults, to employ a cleaner. Doing your own dusting doesn't somehow prove your womanly credentials, after all. It just takes your time which might be spent in another, different, skilful way.

David Trammel's picture

One of my guilty pleasures was watching "Downton Abbey", so I can imagine the attraction of a butler to keep me dressed right (I'm an old bachelor). I suspect that we are headed back into an economy where a sizable percentage of the Lower class works for those with jobs. I don't see anything wrong or demeaning about that unless you are an a$$hole as a boss and abuse the privileged of your position.

Personally if I was 30 years younger I'd seek out some smart gang leader and offer my services as his "court wizard" now so that I would have a comfortable (and interesting) retirement as things collapse.

ClareBroommaker's picture

I think you are right that some people feel guilty for hiring help in and around the home. However, you are giving someone who needs a job, work! That is important.

The thing I talk most about here is gardening. I love to garden, I love to work physically hard, I love the results. I'm not embarrassed to say that I am proud of what I do....But.... once a few years ago I was working on my neighbor's garden (That's how much I love it; I was gardening for them unpaid for years as they do not live in this country.), when a woman dressed in a shabby dress, shoes I had given her on a previous day, and a flowy, silky hijab came by begging for work. I mean BEGGING, PLEADING, BESEECHING, telling me in very little English that she needed food, medicine, and soap, really laying out her poverty. She wanted to do the work I was doing, removing thick dead vine growth from my neighbor's fence. Well, I really wanted to do it myself and I'm a darn frugal person who doesn't hire things out. But good grief, I had some money and so I could pay her. I felt it was my, oh, something like duty, to hire her. Very quickly, I thought back to grade school history class and the idea of noblesse oblige. Huh, here I was, "noblesse". Who would have thought it.

As it turned out, she and I became friends. She calls me "sister"; we help each other. She actually teaches me a lot, through example, about reciprocity. Right now I am wearing a comfortable boiled wool jacket that she got from the leftovers of a garage sale. Susceptible to cold as I am, it is one of my favorite pieces of clothing. I continue to have more money than her, so there remains that inequality. It turns out, too, that she knows a lot about gardening for survival and for beauty, so she is a great gardening companion.

Friendship aside, she was in need, I had what she needed, and it was no skin off my nose to let her work for it. If you can afford it, give people work who need work.