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Outsourcing Drudgery in the Servant Economy

We’re told that some of the world’s wealthiest people are self-made. Of course, starting from nothing is all relative. Elon Musk’s father was a South African emerald magnate (The Buffalo News). Google began in a garage, but its Stanford graduate founders were the sons of computer scientists and mathematicians with a $100,000 investment (BBC News, CNBC). While we might not all have engineer parents or fancy degrees, we all have the same amount of time in a day. There’s now a cottage industry of dissecting successful CEOs’ schedules. 

The “key differentiator” between the successful and the rest of us is said to be an “absolute focus on activities that produce results” (Huffington Post). Musk works 80-100 hours a week, split into five-minute blocks (Finty). Richard Branson rises at 5:00 a.m. and drinks 20 cups of tea a day (Finty). Peter Thiel gets up at 6:30 a.m. and doses himself with Human Growth Hormone (Finty). Fixating on CEOs’ schedules gives the impression that the only reason we aren’t as successful as them is our lack of discipline (Lifehack). After all, we all get the same 24 hours, and they’re rich while we’re not. 

TAKE ACTION

• Reach out to two local organizations or under-resourced people to volunteer your time.

Push people and businesses around you to pay a living wage.

• Reject the idea that time management is what determines affluence or poverty.

But is that really true? Sure, the Earth rotates at the same speed for all of us. Most wealthy people don’t wait for the bus for hours to get to work. They don’t have to vacuum their homes, cook dinner for their families, or take care of their nieces and nephews. They don’t have to wait at the laundromat on their days off. Instead, they hire drivers, housekeepers, cooks, and nannies. Executives like Thiel are free to “expand [their] worldview every day” by reading classic texts in the middle of the workday; their gardeners are not (Finty). 

Well-off people don’t even have to wait in line thanks to businesses like InLine4You, whose mostly-white clientele hire others to do it on their behalf. Its founder reports that 80% of those who wait in line are Black or Latine since “minorities are used to waiting for things” (The Economist). 

More and more, people with means are freeing up their time by outsourcing menial tasks. A 2017 study found that you’ll become happier from buying “time-saving services” than from buying things. Paying someone to clean your bathroom or mow your lawn might have a better effect on your wellbeing than a new TV or pair of shoes (NPR). It makes sense. We could all use more spare time to pursue our hobbies or relax and rest. 

Of course, the people who get hired to liberate others’ schedules can’t do the same themselves. Housekeepers don’t make enough money to get someone to clean their homes. Nannies aren’t hiring nannies of their own. When housekeepers and nannies clock out, they most likely perform the same tasks at home. Professional “line sitters” also have to wait in line for themselves. Poor Americans wait in line longer than affluent people — an average of 10 business days of extra waiting each year (The Economist). Emulating high-powered CEOs’ schedules by outsourcing drudgery will probably improve your quality of life. It’s also part of a modern-day “servant economy” where the wealthy shift unpleasant tasks onto others for poverty wages, with women of color being the worst off (The Atlantic). 

Obviously, there are many everyday people that have to hire support staff because of economic woes, like employing a babysitter to squeeze in extra hours at work. Hiring a babysitter doesn’t make you a monster, though paying less than a living wage* is unjustifiable. But those that have extra capacity to create more time in their day should consider doing more than just making a one-time donation to charity. They can redistribute some time to directly support underserved communities. That could mean tutoring kids, helping folks with government forms, or assisting with food distribution or meal prep. Take some time today to find out about the needs in your area. It doesn’t have to be through a formal organization. If you have a car, help someone without one get to the grocery store. People who have access to a washer and dryer can save someone a trip to the laundromat. 

Grassroots community organizations can always use help. If you aren’t a member of a specific community, you could ask folks in the fight if there are unglamorous tasks you could do: folding pamphlets, cooking food for meetings, cleaning up. 

U.S. workers fought and died for an eight-hour workday (Political Affairs). Today, the average is nine hours. Low-wage workers work multiple jobs before doing unpaid work at home, especially if they’re women. Under racial capitalism, free time is a luxury. In an equitable world, we’d all have time for recreation, pleasure, and joy.

*Find out the living wage in your area here.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

• A time management myth holds that the daily schedules of successful entrepreneurs are the key to their success.

• Affluent people can free themselves from menial tasks because they hire other people to do them, often at poverty wages. 

• Marginalized people already spend more time doing menial tasks, working, and waiting in line.

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