Sometimes I fantasize about a future, some indeterminate number of years hence, when I’ve “made it.” (Exact criteria for “making it” remain fuzzy.) I imagine having an unlimited book-buying budget. Splurging for the fancy cheese without a second thought. Spoiling my puppy with fancy treats and toys guilt-free.
Most of all, though, I imagine a life with less logistical work (what Liz Emens calls “life admin”). No more vacation planning – there are travel agents to do that. No more managing my own schedule – an assistant could pencil in my meetings. No more fretting over retirement accounts – a financial planner would do a much better job.
But this fantasy world crashed down with a loud *thunk* after I read Rachel Sherman’s book Uneasy Street. It’s an interview study of New York’s uber-wealthy, meaning couples with over $250K in annual income and assets into the millions. If anyone has the means to live out my logistics-free dream, it’s the men and women in these pages. And indeed, Sherman reports that they do a lot of outsourcing: most of her respondents have nannies and housekeepers; a fair number have assistants or personal chefs; all hire a range of experts on an ad hoc basis (accountants, contractors, etc.) to renovate their homes and prepare their taxes.
Now for the bad news: even with a troop of employees at hand to dispatch with the physical chores, cognitive and logistical labor remain. There’s the work of finding the right school for the kids, of hiring and firing household employees, and of overseeing country home renovations to ensure that each fixture matches the couple’s aesthetic vision. In short, money can’t buy a cognitive labor-free life.
Nor, it seems, can it buy gender equality. Someone has to keep track of all the things—homes, cars, vacations, employees—that comprise the wealthy family’s domain. And that someone is rarely a man, unless it’s a gay couple (there are a few in Sherman’s sample).
In the vast majority of the different-gender couples profiled, women take on this work. Sherman calls it “the labor of lifestyle,” because much of the work is oriented around consumption (i.e., buying goods and services) rather than production. It’s about selecting the right furniture for the guest suite, interviewing potential math tutors for Junior, and managing the memberships and affiliations that connect the family to a network of similarly wealthy peers.
Wait, you may be thinking, does all that actually count as work? If so, Sherman anticipated your reaction:
Consumption in general…is often associated with self-indulgence and the frittering away of money and time rather than being seen as necessary in order to reproduce families….It is hard to imagine taking care of a second home or planning a European vacation as ‘work.’ (p. 79)
It’s not only outsiders who may look skeptically at this lifestyle “work.” Conflicts over how exactly to categorize and value the labor of lifestyle also bubbled up between spouses. In most cases1 it was men in different-gender couples who managed (and, often, earned the majority of) the couple’s money. This put him in the position of determining which of her expenditures were legitimate: was it reasonable for her to hire a babysitter some evenings, if she already had a nanny during the day? Were the clothes she decided to buy for their children extravagant indulgences or truly necessary? Was volunteering for the children’s school a contribution in the same way his 6-figure salary was a contribution?
Sherman’s larger argument is about how wealthy people work hard to position themselves as moral and good in the face of anti-1% rhetoric. Wealthy respondents who worked for pay had access to a narrative of “earning” and thus “deserving” their wealth that those who worked in the home (i.e., women) couldn’t call on as easily. The conflicts these couples experienced are thus part of a long tradition in which domestic (unpaid, female-typed) work is devalued in comparison to market (paid, male-typed) work.
And yet. It’s important not to draw a false equivalency between the labor of lifestyle and what we might call the “labor of survival.” The nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, and construction workers hired by the wealthy households likely can’t afford to outsource physical tasks like cooking, cleaning, and home maintenance. And on top of that, they must do all the logistical work required to get by on less-than-enough. Things like jumping through hoops to access government benefits, perfectly timing the payment of various bills, and coming up with creative ways to stretch what they have just a bit further than it can comfortably go.
Sherman points out that when we focus narrowly on inequalities within households (e.g., spousal conflicts over money and entitlement), it’s easy to lose sight of inequalities between households. As she puts it, “my feeling of gender solidarity with [female respondents] had obscured their class position.” In the grand scheme, however, these women lived “privileged lives relative to the vast majority of the population.”
I think it’s possible to hold two these two contradictory ideas in mind at once: the women Sherman spoke with are extremely privileged (on the basis of wealth) and relatively disadvantaged (on the basis of gender). That’s the nature of social hierarchies: they show up over and over again in seemingly endless permutations.2 No one is immune. (Okay, maybe white, cis, hetero, Protestant, non-disabled, young men are immune?) But some have it better than others.
For your consideration: I’ve been enjoying running again, now that I’m fully vaccinated and the mask can come off. To spice things up, I’ve hired a (free!) coach in the form of the Nike Run Club app. With their guided runs, you get instructions in your earbuds telling you when to speed up, how fast to go, and when it’s time to take a break. If you’re sick of your standard jog, give it a try.
Women who inherited significant family wealth are a notable exception.