The New Servant Class

“Wealth work” is one of America’s fastest-growing industries. That’s not entirely a good thing.

Butler holding a serving tray
Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd / Getty

In an age of persistently high inequality, work in high-cost metros catering to the whims of the wealthy—grooming them, stretching them, feeding them, driving them—has become one of the fastest-growing industries.

The MIT economist David Autor calls it “wealth work.”

Low-skill, low-pay, and disproportionately done by women, these jobs congregate near dense urban labor markets, multiplying in neighborhoods with soaring disposable income. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of manicurists and pedicurists doubled, while the number of fitness trainers and skincare specialists grew at least twice as fast as the overall labor force.

SOURCE: Brookings analysis of OES data and IPUMS-USA ACS microdata

While there are reasons to be optimistic about this trend, there is also something queasy about the emergence of a new underclass of urban servants.

Let’s start with the bright side: As manufacturing has declined, service jobs have been a crucial source of work for those without a college degree. Immigrants fill many of these positions. According to Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an estimated 20 percent of wealth work is done by people who are not citizens, compared with less than 10 percent of all U.S. labor. Foreign-born workers often move to large metros to find jobs before relocating to cheaper towns and suburbs to build a more permanent home. In this way, one can see wealth work as a bridge for foreign-born workers and less skilled Americans to get a foothold in the labor force.

But Muro cautioned in an interview that “we should also look to the tolerability of these jobs and the precariousness of these lives.”

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.

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.”

Many contractors surely relish the autonomy—and perhaps even the anonymity—of these apps, which give on-demand wealth workers flexibility to work whenever and wherever they wish, while protecting their privacy from clients (if not from the apps themselves), but the rush to make these transactions seamless can make both sides of this marketplace feel invisible. Customers have disaggregated the servant by spreading a once-intimate job across hundreds of drivers, delivery people, and spa workers. Those workers, in turn, have little reason to remember their clients’ names.

Perhaps the ultimate price of wealth work, for all of the opportunities for the low-skilled, is not only the threat of exploitation, but broader alienation. In a digital marketplace of maximal convenience, there is no room for the friction of intimacy.