A friend recently told me that he had called an electrician because a lamp was not working. The electrician asked him if he had considered changing the fuse in the plug. He had not and so a new fuse (retail cost 25p) cost him about £100, probably rather more if you factor in his time.
This is an amusing story of modern metropolitan mores, but it has a serious point. My friend, a successful man in his forties and a solid member of the 1 per cent, is so useless with practical matters that he does not know that fuses are things in plugs that sometimes blow.
He’s not the only the one, either. A Good Housekeeping survey earlier this year revealed that only 55 per cent of millennials can deal with a blown fuse, while only 24 per cent could darn a hole in clothing and a mere 34 per cent could make a white sauce.
But so what? Does this practical helplessness matter? It can just be referred to as “personal outsourcing” — that is, applying the business rules of concentrating on your core activities to your everyday life. Here, you define your core activities as things like your career, activities that matter to you and pastimes you enjoy. You outsource everything else.
There’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that if you can afford it, personal outsourcing is worthwhile because time poverty is one of the curses of our age. In a 2017 study by Harvard Business School, the authors said: “Using money to buy time can protect people from the detrimental effects of time pressure on life satisfaction.”
So far, so smart. If you are a high-powered lawyer, it does not make much sense to work long hours and then spend what little free time you have cleaning the bathroom or cooking. Better to pay to free up that valuable time to do things you enjoy, like spend time with your family.
Over recent years, via the internet and concierge services, the affluent middle classes have been able to enjoy a level of “lifestyle support” that would once have been the preserve of the landed gentry. Now, you cannot only have dinner parties catered with waiters, you can have an assistant telephone your friends to find out who is free and find the optimum date (which, come to think of it, sounds like a really good idea).
You can have your Christmas tree decorated and you can have someone wrap (and then unwrap) your family’s presents. On a more risqué note, modern helpers will even assist you in managing extramarital affairs. According to an article in London’s Evening Standard, you can charge someone with keeping your wife and mistresses apart at parties, “difficult when the latter appear in the plural”.
The Silicon Valley guru Tim Ferriss has suggested it is possible to outsource pretty much everything — and a figure of $50,000 is widely bandied around as the sum needed for affluent professionals to offload all of the tasks they do not really want to do, both at work and at home.
I think the time has come to ask if there is a trade-off. To return to my friend, not being able to change a fuse is a false economy, no matter how rich you are. The knowledge and tools required to take a plug apart are trivial and the hassle involved in calling the electrician will always be greater. Similarly, you should probably know how to cook a few dishes, sew on a button, or entertain your children for half a day without a nanny.
Yet, there is another strand to this — some of these tasks provide a value external to the task itself. An obvious example of this is politicians who do not know the price of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. Here, the mundane task in question has a kind of informational worth and it makes sense to do it occasionally. Indeed, you could argue that part of the value of doing something for yourself is that it allows you to empathise with the “civilians” who make up the bulk of society you are part of. A bit of drudgery keeps you grounded and can even be weirdly satisfying.
In the 1990s there was a mad race among businesses to outsource everything. But, as the 2000s wore on, some companies started questioning this wisdom. They were, they felt, creating strange monocultures. There were unforeseen costs, lost synergies and the savings often did not pan out as expected. Having some non-core functions in-house brought benefits, even if they were sometimes rather hard to quantify.
The same could be true of personal outsourcing and I look forward to the 1 per cent rediscovering the small joys of sewing on buttons and the practical upsides of changing fuses. Give this thinking a snappy name like “personal insourcing” or “lifestyle expertise” and it could be huge.
Rhymer is reading . . .
South Atlantic Requiem. This is the latest in a series of six books by Edward Wilson. Catesby, his disillusioned, leftwing spy, is a wonderful fictional creation and the books bear comparison with John le Carré. The series takes us from the 1950s to the 1980s and offers a refreshingly jaded view of the UK’s postwar decline.
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