Menu Close

Home is where someone else’s heart is: outsourcing care

“Hire-A-Hubby” outsources household maintenance in Australia; will we see outsourcing of emotional services in the near future? Flickr/ Michael Coghlan

Would you feel comfortable paying someone to write the greeting cards you give to your loved ones, or toilet training your child, or pretending to be a new friend to your elderly father by taking him on outings, and when he dies, paying someone else to scatter his ashes for you in a tasteful, emotionally managed, purchased ritual?

In Australia, professional dual-income families and those with high disposable incomes are familiar with the outsourcing of cleaning, cooking, shopping, dog walking or children’s birthday parties. Yet, we still seem a long way from the trend among high-income people in the US of employing mainly Third World women as live-in domestics or even wet nurses, and male stewards of the household called “major-domos” who are responsible for coordinating all day-to-day activities concerning the family.

These services are all listed proudly on the A+Household Staffing Agency: Certified Household Staffing and can be seen as part of the long and undistinguished history of the rich paying the poor to do onerous, physical household tasks. However, the buying and selling of emotional services such as friendship, love, neighbourliness, and care is a somewhat different kind of consumption.

American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild documents this further extension of market relations into our emotional lives in her new and unsettling book The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times. She interviews the people who sell their emotional labour and work for “Rent-a-Grandma”, “Rent-a-Mom” or “Rent a Friend”, a service offering to provide someone with whom you can eat dinner, meet for a coffee or go on trips. The online entrepreneur who developed the idea of advertising “friendship for hire”, recognised and then marketed the wide need in contemporary society for “entanglement-free support.”

The ability to purchase relief (or release) from strong emotional entanglement is a particular feature of the outsourcing of care in America. Hochschild interviews a woman troubled by her feelings of disappointment, loss and frustration when looking after her father with Alzheimer’s disease. When she pays someone else to do it, she is released from these feelings and can see herself once again as a “good daughter”.

In another example, a household manager identified a key role in her enormously demanding job as one of transferring sympathy to people who felt anxious, neglected or distressed. According to Hochschild, the employer, Norma, had “effectively purchased the right to keep her distance from anyone who might have unnerved, irritated, or upset her. Unwittingly, Norma has outsourced sympathy itself”.

The paradox here is that the desire for “entanglement-free support” is often expressed in a language of love, care and attachment. For emotional outsourcing to function smoothly, it must be perceived to be so much more than just a financial arrangement. While, in moments of clarity, hired caregivers might be described by those purchasing their services as being “worth a million dollars”, more often, nannies, housekeepers, life-coaches, baby whisperers, elder-carers, rented friends and human surrogates are portrayed as selfless, naturally caring, genuinely loving, as sharing a precious gift or as being “part of the family”. Moreover, many of those employed in these relationships also describe themselves in similar terms.

The uncomfortable mixture of market and non-market dimensions in these relationships means that those employed to nurture, support and care for others are themselves unsupported and vulnerable to exploitation. In the US context, work conditions are often unprotected and economic arrangements are informal. The dire experiences of some live-in domestics in the US and theUK has even led to domestic work being included in definitions of what is being called a “new slavery”.

What of Australia in this troubling scenario? Will we find ourselves outsourcing more of our family life or personal struggles in an effort to become “entanglement-free”? Our labour laws may protect us against this trend. Even for those who desire to have (or indeed have) live-in household caregivers, wages and conditions, however inadequate, are still largely regulated.

Until recently, we may also have had more faith in public institutions and social support. Privatising the need for care is usually not the first solution to a problem of human vulnerability, illness or dependency. I remember my shock some years ago when reading Kate Jennings’Moral Hazard. Set in New York in the early 2000s, Jennings documents having to employ a “private aide” for her husband who was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. Without the aide, a Jamaican woman, Jennings could not be sure that he would be properly fed, bathed, sheets washed and nappy changed let alone cared for in a much wider, humane way.

We have suffered similar cuts to public funding, shrinking support to aged-care and an increase in the privatisation of services as in the US. This has already led to an outsourcing of care of the most vulnerable. Ever been to an Australian nursing home lately? Jennings’ experience does not seem as remote as it once did.

As Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild argue, like other neo-liberal societies, where “care is produced less and consumed more” are we facing a “care-deficit”.

It is difficult to determine the broader social implications of “subcontracting out” our most intimate, challenging and complex emotions. Among the many risks, is the possibility that in outsourcing “feelings” to others, we may lose an ability to feel for others and the line between what can and cannot be marketed becomes even more blurred.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 174,700 academics and researchers from 4,810 institutions.

Register now