Jobs have been pretty hard to come by in the 21st century. Employment growth was sluggish from 2000 through 2007. Then the recession struck.
There are about a million fewer jobs in the United States today than there were in 2007 — and about 4 million fewer full-time jobs. Combine that with the increase in the working-age population since 2007 and we’re short some 8 million full-time jobs.
Jobs are scarce. There’s no two ways about it. But one job sector is booming: the servant sector.
Not the “service” sector of shelf-stocking and burger-flipping (though that’s growing too). The servant sector. The old-fashioned jobs you read about in 19th century novels: butler, cook, gardener, nanny, nurse, valet.
The American economy has grown slowly in the 21st century, but it has grown. The problem is that literally all of that growth has gone to the very rich. Executives and investors have maintained double-digit annual income growth at a time when everyone else has been lucky just to have a job.
The result has been dramatically increasing inequality, meaning that rich people are once again so rich that they can afford to hire other people to take care of themselves, their homes, and their children.
And their boats. The Guardian newspaper reports that the job market for yacht crews is expanding rapidly. Key employee attributes include “discretion, servility, and good ironing skills.”
“A daily list of housekeeping tasks includes polishing the television remote control and checking the towels for stray threads, which need to be chopped off with nail scissors,” reports Amelia Gentleman of The Guardian.
You don’t just walk off the street into a job on a billionaire’s superyacht. You recruit onto a yacht after completing a training program at a servility training school. For just 975 Euros (around $1300) you can attend a one-week crash course on how to serve the super-rich.
Of course, the training is at your own expense, not that of your future master. That’s why Karl Marx thought capitalism was more efficient than slavery. In today’s market economy, employees bear all the training costs up-front, saving employers the trouble (and the money) of training their own staff.
All kinds of servant professions are expanding, on land as well as on sea. In the United States some servant recruiting firms are experiencing 50% annual growth in placements, according to Businessweek.
At the same time, welfare programs are being cut. The result is that poor single mothers routinely put their own children in bargain-basement childcare in order to spend their days serving the children of the rich — and the rich themselves.
As anyone who has seen Mary Poppins knows, at the beginning of the 20th century inequality was so high that rich people could easily employ armies of servants to take care of their daily household needs.
By the middle of the 20th century almost all of those household servants were gone, replaced by self-service machines (washers, dryers, dish washers) and a spirit of doing things for yourself. No one built homes with servants’ quarters in the 1950s housing boom.
At the beginning of the 21st century servants’ quarters are “poised for a comeback,” as Richard Reep writes at NewGeography.com. The irony is that technology means we need servants less than ever. But if you can afford to keep a dedicated “sea nanny” on staff for days when you take your pampered pre-teen yachting, why not?
In a way the servant economy is a form of tax on the rich. You and I pay taxes to support basic government services. The super-rich don’t pay much in taxes to the government any more. Instead they pay people to trim stray threads off their little-used luxury towels.
It may be an incredibly inefficient way to support workers and run an economy, but it looks like the 21st century servant economy is here to stay. We all love watching Mary Poppins. It looks like now we’re going to get the chance to live it.