There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so (W. Shakespeare)
Really, if the lower orders donâ€™t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? (O. Wilde)
Everybody ought to have a maid (S. Sondheim)
All but the richest Americans have always been awkward about and around domestic employees.Â It grates on the ears of one not raised with household servants to hear them addressed by their first names and not return the familiarity to the lady and gentleman of the house. Â Jacob Davies reflects on servants and opines that the main cost of dependence on cheap servants is to compromise middle class support for (for example) immigration reform, and its “natural” alliance with the poor against the super-rich. I do feel for Republicans who want to drum up votes by scaring us about immigrants and also want their pools cleaned and vegetables picked and meat packing plants staffed by a cheap, docile, labor force…
Very few people aspire to the status of butler or housecleaner or family cook, and it seems degrading to classify someone as a ‘servant’.Â Why this is so is sort of obvious intuitively but not so clear if we try to figure out why.Â I sense that the social status of the following occupations is roughly as follows:
Accountant (in accounting firm)
Accountant (family practice)
Municipal streetlight maintenance worker
Municipal sewer worker
Housecleaner (many clients)
Household maid (live-in)
Higher professional qualifications, at least more education, obviously moves one up the scale.Â Other things equal, being involved with dirt and yucky stuff moves one down.Â Being responsible to a task rather than to an individual is higher-status, and so is supervising others (though I didn’t include that in my notional scale).Â The sewer worker, at dinner out, will receive personal service from the waiter, but the sewer worker’s service is not individualized to anyone on a lateral of his pipe.Â The plumber’s services are individualized on any given job, but he has many clients; why does he rank above the waiter, though?Â Probably because he has specialized technical knowledge and uses tools, and because the waiter is expected to do more generally “what his diners want” rather than just take orders and deliver them to the kitchen; perhaps because the service of the waiter is performed in public and because part of his pay is at the post-service discretion of the diner.Â It’s always lower-status to be paid what the client unilaterally wishesÂ than aÂ rate or amount contracted in advance: equals make deals, superiors give charity to inferiors.
None of this has much to do with the actual value created by any of these example occupations: a household maid may well do just as much cleaning up, bedmaking and laundry per day, and exercise much more discretion and planning about it, as hotel workers do in 8 hours, but it seems more dignified to do it for people with whom one has no ongoing personal relationship and as one of many workers in a company.Â If you separate the drinking water from the sewage in a nonindustrialized indigenous community, you double life expectancy, while the proctologist and all his colleagues only get us about another five years; I’d much rather go without doctors than plumbers. If you think about it, the only value any of us can create is to be of service to others, and the consensus hierarchy is deeply absurd.
I’ve always been a little puzzled that my own work is cleaning up and processing the most dangerous and repulsive thing in all of human experience (ignorance), that a lot of it is personalized, indeed advising graduate students is more highly regarded than teaching a large course, and yet I have status beyond what my income would suggest.
It’s a strange world.