But Muro cautioned in an interview that “we should also look to the tolerability of these jobs and the precariousness of these lives.”
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Wealth work falls into two basic categories. First, full-time retail and service jobs at places like nail salons and spas. “You’re talking about people with $30,000 incomes that are often employed in high-wealth metro areas, or resort economies,” Muro said. Because they often cannot afford to live near their place of work, they endure long commutes from lower-cost neighborhoods. These arrangements aren’t merely time-consuming; they can also be exploitative. For example, New York City nail salons are notorious for flouting minimum-wage laws and other labor regulations, and massage parlors across Florida have served as fronts for human trafficking.
A second category is the “Uber for X” economy—that nebulous network of people contracted through online marketplaces for driving, delivery, and other on-demand services. Optimistically, these jobs offer autonomy for workers and convenience for consumers, many of whom aren’t wealthy. But the business models that keep these firms aloft rely on the strategic avoidance of laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates minimum wage and overtime pay. These laborers often do the work of employees with the legal protections of contractors—which is to say, hardly any.
In both types of situation, the relationship between wealth workers and their customers is easily exploited and often impersonalized—an oddity considering the intimacy of the work, which involves feeling hair, touching nails, massaging skin, entering a stranger’s home to assemble his bedroom, or welcoming him into your car.
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Wealth work is not new—nor are its critiques.
“For centuries, a woman’s social status was clear-cut: Either she had a maid or she was one,” the author Ester Bloom wrote in The Atlantic. In the late 19th century, more than half of women worked in domestic and personal service.
Today’s “servant economy”—as The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has called it—is vastly superior to that of the late 19th century (to say nothing of the slave economy that preceded it). The nannies, house cleaners, and cooks of the past had little to no recourse, not even in name, to the protection of the law if their employers maltreated them. But their work was also less anonymous; the hired help tended to live with their employers, where they would cook, clean, and care for children. These workers were integrated into family life in a way that is unthinkable for the anonymous wealth workers of the modern world.
Relationships between the classes, once mediated through the household, are now managed through an app that serves a large metro area. The workers of the new servant economy don’t live with their employers, but rather sleep many miles away where they can afford a bedroom. “You could argue there was a more benignly human quality to the old aristocratic relationships,” the economist Muro told me. “Today’s platforms strip down what was once a job into simple, seamless transactions.”