Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From having a child, to naming it, pay someone else

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"ALL the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come," said the late French writer Victor Hugo.

This sentiment is echoed in veteran U.S. author and sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild's latest book, an absorbing discussion of the ever-growing trend of outsourcing personal services, from takeout food and paid companions for the elderly to wedding planners and hired mourners.

In the past, friends, family and the community fulfilled many of these services, but much less so nowadays, writes Hochschild.

"The market is now present in our bedrooms, at our breakfast tables, in our love lives, entangled in our deepest joys and sorrows."

Hochschild writes that the inspiration for The Outsourced Self, her eighth book, came from two of her childhood experiences. Every summer, she and her cousins stayed on their grandmother's farm and did all the chores, which Hochschild found emotionally rewarding.

This was quite the opposite to the diplomatic household of her youth in which a double-digit number of servants performed personal services for members of the family. This disparity led to further reflection about the emotional aspect of personal outsourcing.

She targets The Outsourced Self at the layperson. The book's succinct, lucid style bears some similarity to that of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers or Naomi Klein's No Logo, but with less panache.

A case in point is the opening page of each of the 14 chapters. Hochschild invariably segues into a discussion of the topic by first describing the interview subject's physical appearance. After five or six chapters, this same technique renders the introductions less than captivating.

The heart of the book lies in the topics themselves. One chapter deals with surrogacy, a booming business in India despite most surrogates living near the poverty live. Ethical issues abound, such as multiple births, differing religions of surrogates and parents as well as bonding between the surrogate and child.

Other chapters present more extreme examples of outsourced services: "nameologists," who choose the best name for a newborn child; "wantologists," who help people get what they want from life; and birthday planners and potty trainers and parent evaluators.

In some cities, web-based services like Rent-a-Friend.com and Christmas planners are not uncommon.

At various junctures, Hochschild recounts her own struggle with the outsourcing of personal services in a discussion about her ongoing search for the best alternative to an elderly aunt's stay in a nursing home.

According to Hochschild, the larger the city, the greater the prevalence of outsourcing of services. In other words, the absence of community leads people to rely more heavily on strangers to provide services.

At the same time, the increasing availability of these services saps people of their confidence in their own capacities and those of friends and family.

That said, don't expect the outsourcing of personal services to disappear anytime soon. Quite the opposite, she says. "The more anxious and isolated we are and the less help we receive from non-market sources, the more we feel tempted to fill the void with market offerings."

Though the book's focus is on the United States, can Canada be far behind on the heels of this trend? Definitely a chilling thought, and one that warrants further consideration, thanks to Hochschild's keen, unblinking eye.

 

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 J8

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