- Families are now working from home, caring for children at home, schooling their children at home, doing their own yard work, cooking at home, and improving their home themselves. Tweet This
- More families are now starting to do things for themselves that they were formerly paying others to do. Think of it as a move back to the Do-It-Yourself household. Tweet This
Middle and upper-middle class American families have gotten used to outsourcing a lot of their life: child care, cooking, manicures, house cleaning, mowing the grass, even driving. Pandemic related health fears and work disruptions drove some people to outsource even more. Many have tried grocery delivery for the first time, for example. Like a modern lower end version of a Gilded Age baron, many Americans are now catered to by an army of part-time servants.
But the sustainability of paying people to do things for us is an open question. Many of these outsourced services rely on poorly paid employees or gig workers to keep prices affordable to their customers. Even with poor pay, companies like Uber or DoorDash have still lost enormous amounts of money. They have been subsidizing their services with venture capital, creating what the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson labeled the “Millennial Lifestyle Sponsorship.” He thought it was starting to come to an end. How many outsourced services can we really afford if the workers are paid a living wage and companies actually have to make a profit?
Beyond those questions, which were being raised pre-pandemic, there are now other issues to contend with. Inflation is squeezing household budgets. Worker shortages means some services are not as available at any price because there are no workers to do the job. Possibly these are temporary, but for now, they are real.
All of these have created a countervailing trend of insourcing. More families are now starting to do things for themselves that they were formerly paying other people to do. Think of it as a move back to the Do-It-Yourself household.
One area of insourcing is child care. Many day care centers were closed during the pandemic, and their employees found work elsewhere. Now, according to ABC News, the number of childcare workers is down 125,000 from pre-pandemic and many day care centers are closing. At the same time, pay is abysmal in the field, averaging only $12.24 per hour, while requirements put on workers are going up. Washington, DC passed an ordinance requiring all childcare workers to have a college degree by 2022. Many parents can’t absorb the price increases necessary to pay higher wages to day care workers. Some want the federal government to subsidize child care, but this would turn much of the economy into de facto make work jobs. People would be doing economically marginal labor that doesn’t even pay enough to offset their own costs, requiring even more subsidized support labor to close the gap. It would be better to just pay working mothers the difference directly and let them stay home with their kids.
Many mothers are doing just that—deciding either out of preference or necessity to stop working and care for their children. About 1.6 million working mothers left the labor force during the pandemic. Some of them are now homeschooling. School closures, mask requirements, quarantine rules, and other ever-shifting pandemic rules sent many families heading for the exits of institutional schools. The number of households that are homeschooling doubled during the pandemic and is now up to 11.1% of all families with school-aged children.
Labor shortages are showing up elsewhere in the economy, too. Good luck trying to find a contractor or handyman to take on a small home improvement project. With more people also working from home, and perhaps being concerned about the health risks of having workers in the home, do it yourself home improvement projects surged during the pandemic. Whether that will persist long term is another question, but more people are starting to take home improvement matters into their own hands.
People also started doing more of other things in their homes during the pandemic, such as cooking. Baking became so popular that there were shortages of flour and yeast. Gardening also took off. While people have been dining and ordering food out more as the economy has reopened, some surveys suggest that a sizable majority of people plan to continue cooking at home post-pandemic.
Most white-collar workers in America were forced to work at home during the pandemic. Many of them discovered they liked it and want to keep doing it. Many companies, especially in the tech industry, have responded with policies allowing work from home permanently. This includes firms like Twitter and Spotify. Nationwide Insurance is closing several offices and allowing companies in those locations to work remotely. Others like Ford are embracing a hybrid model with a mix of in office and remote work. Pre-pandemic, the share of people working from home was already rising, going from 3.3% in 2000 to 5.7% in 2019. Even if only a small share of workers stays fully remote, this will be millions of additional workers. While work from home is not the same as a home-based business, it still represents a radical reorientation of the location where work is performed. It’s as if the textile business reverted from factory-centered back to the putting-out system.
Add it together, and this is a radical shift for many families. They are now working from home, caring for children at home, schooling their children at home, doing their own yard work, cooking at home, and improving their home themselves.
This may not be a reversion to pre-industrial homesteading, but it does represent a significant re-functionalization of the home within a post-industrial context for millions of families. Whether this will persist for the long term is yet to be seen, but with inflation and shortages continuing to squeeze the economy, the Do-It-Yourself family will likely be with us for at least a while longer. By choice or under duress, some Americans are going to have to start saying goodbye to their servants.
Aaron M. Renn is the publisher of the Masculinist, a newsletter about Christianity, masculinity, and the modern world.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.