≡ Menu

Review: ‘The Outsourced Self’ by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Review: ‘The Outsourced Self’ by Arlie Russell Hochschild post image

Title: The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Other to Live Our Lives for Us
Author: Arlie Russell Hochschild
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Publisher: Picador (Paperback)
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★½

Publisher’s Summary: We’ve long imagined the family as being apart from the marketplace, the one realm where the personal and the private hold sway. Yet as Arlie Russell Hochschild shows in The Outsourced Self, the market has quietly invaded our homes in a huge variety of ways — as we turn to dating services, wedding planners, eldercare workers, eldercare managers, life coaches, and sometimes even surrogate mothers across the world to bear our biological children. How, Hochschild asks, do we keep personal life feeling personal? Even if we never buy anything, why are we beginning to think of personal life as business people look at profit and loss, return on investment, and the bottom line? Can’t we find a better balance?

Review: Since 2004, the year I moved out of my parents house and into the dorms at my university, I’ve moved 11 different times. And every single one of those times, my mom, my dad, my brother and my sister and my friends have been there to help me. But that’s a luxury (or perhaps tradition) that people who move far away from their social networks often don’t have. Instead, a huge industry of professionals has developed specifically to fill a gap created by diffused communities.

While The Outsourced Self by Arlie Russell Hochschild never specifically mentions movers (I think they’re too functional for her purposes), it was the best example I could think of from my own life that sort of illustrates the conundrum of this book: what happens when we allow market-driven services into our personal lives? What are the emotional and social repercussions of outsourcing tasks that we used to rely on our network of family and friends to help complete?

Throughout the book, Hochschild compares how people completed personal tasks like finding a mate, planning their weddings, and taking care of their aging parents in the “good old days” with the services that are available now, offering a contrast between a time that emphasized community and a time that, in some respects, emphasizes results. And her tone throughout is quite wistful, looking back and romanticizing what we had compared to what we have (or could have) now.

While I understand what she was trying to do, there are points at which it feels like Hochschild doesn’t give life today enough credit. In the chapter on dating for example, I couldn’t help think that the opportunities that online dating can provide are a much better option than just waiting around on your front porch for a friend of a friend to come alone.

But I suppose that leads into one of the most fascinating parts of the book, the way the different individuals that Hochschild interviewed put limits on the things they were willing to outsource. Each person had some (generally inexplicable) point at which they became uncomfortable with handing off a task to someone else and chose to keep it for themselves.

As a reader, it was interesting to compare their comfort levels with my own. Hire someone to clean my house? If I had the money, absolutely. Join an online dating site? I’d consider it. Hire someone to plan my wedding? Maybe, but probably not because it seems awfully extravagant. Hire a surrogate to carry my baby? I’m not sure I could do that.

The Outsourced Self really offers a series of conversation starters. What types of personal outsourcing are you comfortable with? How do you value the relationships you have with others? What is the proper balance, for you, between keeping your personal life personal or passing on some of those tasks for others? There’s no right answer to any of these questions, but they’re important concerns I hadn’t spent much time considering until I read this book.

Other Reviews: Jackofallbooks | Publishers Weekly | The New York Times |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • jenn aka the picky girl April 12, 2013, 8:31 am

    The elder care one hits home as we were in hospice this fall with my grandmother. Here’s the thing – yes, people used to do this care on their own, but how often were they equipped to do what needed to be done. Had we not had those nurses there, giving us updates, I would have likely missed entirely too much work, constantly at her bedside. As it was, I was there every evening and weekend until she died. It was emotional and exhausting, and I cannot imagine any one of us having to do all the nurses did during that time.

    I honestly feel that what the nurses gave us was the ability to just be with her and each other instead of figuring out how to turn her best or which medicines to administer.

    I know this is a long comment, but as you say, I do think the author may be downplaying the benefits. Interesting, though, because it certainly brought on a gut reaction from me.

    • Kim April 14, 2013, 9:02 am

      Several of the people she interviewed in the book expressed the exact same sentiment about these different services — that taking away some of the tedious or difficult or skilled services like hospice nursing things made it easier for families to be there emotionally. And while I don’t want to put words in the author’s mouth, I think she does see the benefit of those services and is more critical of services that seem to either dehumanize people (givers or receivers) or that foist some of the emotional work off to other people — both things that it sounds like wouldn’t be the case with your grandmother.

      But like you said, the idea of outsourcing does cause these gut reactions, either in favor like you said or against when it seems like “too much” or something. The book is interesting if only for that.

  • Ali April 12, 2013, 7:09 pm

    Interesting. I will have to read this book because, based on your review, I disagree with her whole thesis. A dating service doesn’t mean you have someone else date for you to “vet” the options, it’s just a way of meeting people. When my inlaws moved out here I offered for them to live with us, and they didn’t want to–they wanted more independence. That means that they pay a retirement home for meals and other services that I would have provided, but I still take them to the doctor and we are still the ones they call when they need a favor. As for hiring someone to clean the house–people who could afford to do so have done that for centuries! (I hired someone to clean for a year and hated it, though, so go figure).

    • Kim April 14, 2013, 9:05 am

      I think she has, I guess, different levels of criticism for different services and what they might give or take. The dating service was an early chapter and I didn’t think she was that critical of it compared to some other issues. But like you sort of said, we all have levels that outsourcing makes sense and a point where it makes us uncomfortable which is interesting to me.

  • Teresa April 13, 2013, 9:33 am

    As great as it is to be able to do things for ourselves, I’m unceasingly grateful that there are services out there to do stuff for me. I don’t have time or much interest in learning to fix my car or repair the plumbing, and the people who are expert in doing those things are able to earn a living by helping me get that stuff done. So it works well for everyone. And once I got out of my 20s, I pretty much stopped meeting single men, so having a way to meet people I wouldn’t encounter in day-to-day life is helpful. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have considered it because I didn’t see the need, but now if I want to date, that’s the only way to do it.

    I wonder if she’s really nostalgic for a time when people had more free time and when communities were more close-knit and people in them were able to meet each other’s needs without an exchange of money. I get that, but I can think of times when relying on friends do to a task meant not getting it done well, but because it was a favor, I couldn’t complain (much). For example, I used to have a friend cat-sit for me, but after several instances of him not scooping the litter box, despite my repeated requests, so I hired someone to do it and have had no problems. So I guess I’m not on board with her nostalgia, although I’m sure I have limits as to what I’m willing to outsource but it’s hard to pin down what those limits are.

    • Kim April 14, 2013, 9:07 am

      I live a bit of a distance from my family and hate to ask favors, so I’m pretty grateful for services that can help me do things — lots of the stuff you mentioned. One of the women she interviewed mentioned your exact issue with friends — might as well pay to do something well rather than feeling bad when friends don’t meet expectations.

  • Allison @ The Book Wheel April 13, 2013, 3:34 pm

    I’ve seen this book a few times in search engine results and was unsure whether I wanted to read it, but your review has tipped the scale in its favor! I have moved a lot, as well, and usually to places where I knew no one, so this sounds interesting!

    Thanks for the great review.

    • Kim April 14, 2013, 9:08 am

      I hope it’s interesting for you! It gave me a lot to think about, which is one of the things I love most in nonfiction.