December 28, 2008 in Opinion

Burst bubble fuels DIY shift

Froma Harrop Syndicated columnist
 

“Doing it yourself these days?” asks the Depression-era ad for bleach. It shows pampered hands wading in a tub full of laundry.

There’s more doing-it-yourself in this Great Recession, as well. The economic downturn has stripped the bubble bourgeoisie of the funds required to employ an army of house cleaners, nannies, personal trainers, dog walkers and other hired helpers.

It was very 2005 to read of couples using a service to water the two tomato plants on their deck. And of teenage daughters being given their own private Pilates instruction.

For all but the richest, that level of personal assistance has crashed with the stock market and the popped real estate blister. Some outsourcers of chores are cutting out; others are cutting back. A few are reportedly trying to pass their own pay reductions down the employment chain. Not attractive.

This trend is very unfortunate for the providers of these services. Many lawn, housecleaning and child care workers are immigrants, and their falling incomes are hurting economies in Central America and the Caribbean.

For their downwardly mobile patrons, however, the assumption of personal tasks can be character-building. Walking one’s dog is healthy exercise. And spending more time raising one’s own children can be good for the family.

Many two-income couples hired a nanny to care for their children while they were at work. But some added the night nanny – or “newborn specialist” – lest they be awakened by a crying baby at 2 a.m.

Agencies that provided night nannies made that “need” sound so middle class. One such company sadly noted that parents of young children no longer have family down the street to help them out. Did the grandmas of yore go out in their bathrobes to comfort their crying grandchildren? Don’t think so.

In olden times, a vacation gave working couples the opportunity to act as the daytime parents they could not be ordinarily. But many decided they didn’t want to spend their free time on child care. They wanted to ski and kayak and go to wine tastings – and so they brought the nanny along on vacations.

There was a growing business in chauffeuring children. Parents would spend thousands a year for a driver to take the kids to piano lessons, soccer practice or school.

On the vanity front, all that sloshing home-equity cash built a spa culture of hyper-indulgence. The jobs it created went beyond hairdresser and manicurist. People hired experts to pluck their eyebrows and use hot stones at their massages. The 30-minute facial grew into an hour-long multivitamin antioxidant treatment.

The new austerity has blown a tire on the spa business. And it has apparently given a boost to the do-it-yourself beauty market.

Coty, the maker of drugstore nail products, reports that its nail-polish sales are up nearly 6 percent this year. Meanwhile, Clairol has high hopes for its new line of do-it-at-home hair color products.

Similar trends are no doubt hurting dog grooming establishments.

And so the former kings and queens of the bubble economy are now blowing their own leaves and cooking their own meals. They’re taking their kids to the playground and reacquainting themselves with their tweezers and irons.

Their teens, meanwhile, are lining up for mall jobs, so as to continue some of the consumption no longer fueled by fat allowances. As a byproduct of this new reality, more adolescents are looking for jobs that pay rather than the volunteer work that stirs college-admission officers.

The truth is that middle-class Americans had never really become ladies and gentlemen of leisure. They worked like canines and borrowed heavily for the means to hire others. That mirage had to end.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.


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