THE COMMODITY FRONTIER
The commodity frontier, Janus-faced, looks out on one side to the marketplace and on the other side to the family. On the market side it is a frontier
for companies as they expand the number of market niches for goods and services covering activities that, in yesteryear, formed part of unpaid “family life." On the other side it is a frontier for families that feel the need or desire to consume such goods and services.
On the company side a growing supply of services is meeting a growing demand for “family” jobs. In a recent article in Business Week, Rochelle Sharpe notes, “Entrepreneurs are eager to respond to the time crunch, creating businesses unimaginable just a few years ago.” These include “breast feeding consultants, baby-proofing agencies, emergency babysitting services, companies specializing in paying nanny taxes and others that install hidden cameras to spy on babysitters’ behavior. People can hire bill payers, birthday party planners, kiddy taxi services, personal assistants, personal chefs, and, of course, household managers to oversee all the personnel.”1′ One ad posted on the Internet includes in the list of available services “pet care, DMV registration, holiday decorating, personal gift selection, party planning, night life recommendations, personal/professional correspondence, and credit card charge disputes.” The services of others are implied in the names of the agencies that offer them—Mary Poppins, Wives for Hire (in Hollywood), and Husbands – or Rent (in Maine).7 One agency, Jill of All Trades, organizes closets and packs up houses. (Clients trust the assistant to sort through their belongings and throw the junk out. As one assistant commented, “People don’t have time to look at their stuff. I know what’s important.”8 Another Internet job description read as follows:
Administrative assistant with corporate experience and a Martha Stewart edge to manage a family household…. A domestic interest is required and the ability to travel is necessary. Must enjoy kids! This is a unique position requiring both a warm-hearted and business-oriented individual.’1
Not only do the qualities called for in the assistant cross the line between market and home; the result can cross a more human line as well. As the Business Week reporter Rochelle Sharpe describes: “Lynn Corsiglia, a human resources executive in California, remembers the disappointment in her daughter’s eyes when the girl discovered that someone had been hired to help organize her birthday party. ‘I realized that і blew the boundary,’ she says.” Lynn Corsiglia felt she had moved, one might say, to the cultural edge of the commodity frontier as her daughter defined that edge."’
This expansion of market services applies mainly to executives and professionals—both single men and single women, and “professional households without wives” as Saskia Sassen has called them.11 Often faced with long hours at work, many employees see the solution not in sharing or neglecting wifely chores, but in hiring people to do them. With the increasing gap between the top 20 percent and bottom 20 percent of the income scale, more rich people can afford such services, and poorer and middle-class peo-
pie are eager to fill jobs providing them. As their income rises, wealthy people—especially those in high-pressure careers—take advantage of the goods and services on this frontier, and many poor people aspire to do so.
The commodity frontier has impinged on Western domestic life for many centuries. It is doubtful that Queen Victoria clipped her own toenails or breast-fed her children. Indeed, in early modem Europe, it was common for urban upper-class parents to give their babies over to rural wet nurses to raise during the first years of life.1′ So the commodity frontier has a history as well as a future trajectory, and both are lodged in a local sense of what belongs where for life to seem right.
Still, within American and European culture in recent decades, the character of the commodity frontier has changed. We can speak crudely of newer and older expressions of it. Relative to ours today, eighteenth – and nineteenth-century commodification of domestic life involved a greater cultural blur between service and server. An eighteenth-century white souiii – em aristocrat who bought a slave bought the person, not the service—the very ultimate in commodification.13 And die indentured servant differed from the slave only in degree. The millionaire’s ad for a “beautiful, smart hostess, good masseuse,” by contrast, strikes us as modern in that it is purely the services, classified and priced, that are up for purchase. The ad seems to tease apart many aspects of what was once one role. Structural differentiation between family and economy, a process Smelser traces in English history, becomes here a cultural idea in a commercial context, which lends itself to an almost jazzlike improvisation. As in jazz, the ad plays with the idea of dividing and recombining, suggesting different versions of various combinations.14
Especially in their more recent incarnation, die commercial substitutes for family activities often turn out to be better than the real thing. Just as the French bakery often makes better bread than mother ever did, and the cleaning service cleans the house more thoroughly, so therapists may recognize feelings more accurately, and childcare workers prove more even – tempered than parents, in a sense, capitalism isn’t competing with itself, one company against another, but with the family, and particularly with the role of the wife and modier.
A cycle is set in motion. As the family becomes more minimal, it turns to the market to add what it needs and, by doing so, becomes yet more minimal. This logic also applies to the two functions Talcott Parsons thought would be left to the family when all the structural differentiation was said and done: socialization of children and adult personality stabilization.
To be sure, there is a countertrend as well. The cult of Martha Stewart appeals to die desire to resist the loss of family functions to the marketplace—like the “do-it-yourself” movement, which of course creates a market niche of its own for the implements and knowledge needed to do it yourself.
Still, the prevailing direction is toward relinquishing family functions to the market realm. And various trends exacerbate this tendency. Most important is the movement of women into paid work. In 1950 less than a fifth of mothers with children under six worked in the labor force while a half century later, two-thirds of such mothers do. Their salary is also now vital to the family budget. Older female relatives who might in an earlier period have stayed home to care for their grandchildren, nephews, and nieces are now likely to be at work too.
In addition, work has recently been taking up more hours of the year. According to an International Labor Organization report, Americans now work two weeks longer each year than their counterparts in Japan, the vaunted long-work-hour capital of the world. And many of these long-hour workers are also trying to maintain a family life. Between 1989 and 1996, for example, middle-class married couples increased their annual work hours outside the home from 3,550 to 3,685, or more than three extra forty-hour weeks of work a year.15
Over the last half century, the American divorce rate has also increased to 50 percent, and a fifth of households with children are now headed by single mothers, most of whom get little financial help from their ex-husbands and most of whom work full-time outside the home.1" Like the rising proportion of women who work outside the home, divorce also, in effect, reduces the number of helping hands at home—creating a need or desire for supplemental forms of care.
The state has done nothing to ease the burden at home. Indeed, the 1996 federal welfare reforms reduced aid to parents with dependent children, with the responsibility devolving on the states, which have in turn reduced aid, even for food stamps. Many states have also implemented cutbacks in public recreation and parks and library programs designed to help families care for children.
In addition to the depletion of both private and public resources for care, there is an increasing uncertainty associated with cultural ideas about the proper source of it. The traditional wife-mother role has given way to a variety of different arrangements—wives who are not mothers, mothers who are not wives, second wives and stepmothers, and lesbian mothers. And while these changes in the source of care are certainly not to be confused with a depletion of care, the changing culture itself gives rise to uncertainties about it. Will my father still be living with me and taking care of me fifteen years from now, or will he be taking care of a new family he has with a new wife? Will the lesbian partner of my mother be part of my life when I am older if my mother’s parents don’t accept her, or will it be my grandma I don’t see? In addition to a real depletion in resources available for familial care, then, the shifting cultural landscape of care may account for some sense of anxiety about it.
Thus, as the market advances, as the f amily moves from a production to
a consumption unit, as it faces a care deficit, as the cultural landscape of care shifts, individuals increasingly keep an anxious eye on what seems like the primary remaining symbol of abiding care—mother.