The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us

by Arlie Russell Hochschild
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Amazon Exclusive: Barbara Ehrenreich Reviews The Outsourced Self
Barbara Ehrenreich is the best-selling author of Nickel and Dimed.

It's a rare and brilliant book that helps us see ordinary life in a whole new way. Take the business of children's birthday parties. When my children were little, I'd put on their parties myself--making the cake, setting up the party games, presiding over the subsequent chaos, and cleaning up the mess. Forty years later, my daughter arranges for "professionals" to create and manage her children's parties. The nationwide chain called The Little Gym, for example, runs a 90 minute party for $225, including invitations, paper goods, and leadership by a "qualified birthday leader plus an assistant." Parents watch the whole thing from the sidelines.

As Arlie Russell Hochschild shows, birthday parties are only one way we've "outsourced" our personal lives. We might seek on-line match-making companies to find a mate, paid relationship advisors to navigate the dating process, wedding planners if the process is successful, perhaps a surrogate mother to bear the children, then child-raising experts to advise on parenting issues--not to mention special consultants to arrange care for the older generation. In other words, that vast and impersonal entity--the market--is penetrating our most intimate relationships and managing the great turning points in our lives. Those who can afford to pay them are increasingly dependent on outside "experts," "coaches," and of course "birthday leaders."

Is this the dystopian outcome dreaded by social scientists since the 19th century? Or is it a rational adjustment to a busy and complex world where no one has time to make their own party favors? Hochschild is definitely drawn to the old, self-reliant, ways represented by her own grandparents, but she is a sociologist, not a scold. The Outsourced Self goes on to explore the ways people manage to redraw the lines between public and private and maintain a modicum of autonomy. I won't say Hochschild will "make" you think: She's such a keen observer and delightful writer that she makes it fun to think. --Barbara Ehrenreich

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