November 22, 2014

Wannabes and absentees: Do it yourself and Pay someone else

During the shift toward status-striving of the past 30-odd years, there have been two huge changes in the way that services are performed. One is to Do It Yourself, the other is to Pay Someone Else. At the level of outsourcing vs. doing something in-house, these two are opposites, so there must be a unifying common theme at a higher level. That's where the link to status-striving lies.

Where have people increasingly opted for the DIY "solution"?

Home improvement — beyond simple maintenance and repairs, homeowners now remodel and build additions. They are also inclined to build their own furniture and fashion their own small decorations.

Specialty mechanics and electronics — modding your car, modding your computer or video game console or phone (perhaps tinkering with the hardware, but usually futzing around with software settings). "Developing" your own digital image captures (hours of dicking around in Photoshop), repairing your own intricate camera and lenses ("a little WD-40 ought to silence that squeaking..."), and photographing something complicated and important. Putting together a full mechanics' workshop in the garage.

Health — except for major trauma, diagnosing and treating malaise or illness is now done through researching a bit online, then drawing up a list of the right mix of foods, vitamins, supplements, and pills. Faddish psychobabble therapies can be added if the pain is mostly emotional.

These services require years of acquired knowledge, experience, and skills, not to mention tools and materials that are relatively expensive, hard to find, and difficult to understand and use. They are done — or used to be done — by artisans and professionals, and confer status on the DIY-ers.

What about the trend toward Pay Someone Else?

Child-rearing — daycare workers, nannies, school teachers (substitute mothers), and coaches and tutors of varying specialties (substitute fathers) now perform most of the day-to-day and face-to-face activities of raising children. That's in addition to parking your kids in front of a glowing media screen, an even more flagrant form of outsourcing your parenting duties.

Meal cooking — hardly anyone makes home-cooked meals anymore, which come instead from fast food chains, microwave meals, and already prepared meals / hot bar items at the supermarket.

Housekeeping and yard work — women who sweep, vacuum, clean counters, and scrub toilets and showers, as well as men who ride lawnmowers and aim leafblowers.

These services are unskilled and require the use of tools and materials that are cheap, plentiful, and simple to use. Their main input is labor (time and effort), so they would subtract status if the Pay-Someone-Elsers were to do it themselves.

The psychology is easy to understand. Status-strivers want to do the professional work themselves, to reap the benefits of branding themselves as artisans. They shed the status deadweight of unskilled work through outsourcing, even if it means neglecting their familial duties.

There are far broader implications for the economy, though, not just changes in how annoyingly grandiose and shamefully neglectful your fellow neighbors, co-workers, and citizens have become.

The DIY movement has wiped out the number of man-hours that could have been done by true artisans and skilled workers, and lowered the asking price of the labor they can still sell to customers, who now expect dirt-cheap services since "I could always just do it myself, y'know." If the service proves too complicated to DIY, the customer will just opt for replacement rather than repair (fueling planned obsolescence). That eliminates the once common fix-it shops as a way of making a living.

The Pay Someone Else movement has swollen the number of man-hours going into unskilled labor, which is already low-paying, offering little to no benefits, temporary / high-turnover, and uncertain job security.

The outcome is widening inequality, as skilled jobs are replaced by unskilled. We usually associate that with heartless managers of large companies decomposing a skilled task into separate rote tasks through mechanization. But here we see just how deep the rot goes — even ordinary individual consumers are such self-regarding skinflints that skilled tradesmen must debase themselves into unskilled laborers in order to satisfy the status-enhancing lifestyles of today's middle class.

Sure, skilled artisans can still find work with the top-top-top level elite, whose budgets are unlimited and who are more inclined toward conspicuous leisure. But that's not a large market. It was the middle class market for skilled services that used to support an electronics repair shop, photography studio, and carpenter's workshop.

Unlike the decadent and parasitic elite, the middle class actually produces for a living, and can't indulge so much in conspicuous leisure. So, conspicuous consumption it is. Middle-class folks have never been more profligate with their disposable income, loans, and credit — yet they would take it as a personal defeat to have to hire a carpenter to remodel their cabinets. All that status item spending has drained the portion of their income that could have gone toward skilled services and production.

After all, why by one good pair of shoes made by skilled Americans when you can buy five pairs made by unskilled Salvadoreans? Owning a single pair of shoes prevents you from participating in the fashion treadmill. So does owning a single professionally made dishwasher for 30 years — if the workers are barely skilled and their product breaks down every five years, that's just an opportunity to UPGRADE DAT SHIT and impress your friends. For status-strivers, crummy products are the gift that keeps on giving.


  1. Can you do a post on a third type of status striving, namely conspicuous displays of taste? Today's overeducated but financially struggling SWPLs can afford neither conspicuous leisure nor conspicuous consumption, so they compete through awareness of the latest trends: music, fashion, diets, exercise fads, iphone apps, slang/memes, TV, etc. These have their own form of planned obsolescence: by the time something becomes popular, they move on to the next thing. Nothing has staying power. Of course, this has to be the case, otherwise there is no taste to advertise (if everyone agrees that X is the best band and Y is the best diet, then you can't impress anyone by switching to W band and Z diet).

  2. In my family, my Mom, Grandmother, and I do both unskilled and skilled labor ourselves. No servants, cooking from scratch, and arts and crafts (sewing, beads, music).

  3. Quality, when it comes to goods and services, is hard to identify especially if you don't know what to look for. And a lot of the artisan manufactures are often absurdly over-priced.

  4. That's why reputation matters. Today's appliances, even large expensive ones like washers, dryers, and dishwashers, have a reputation for all breaking in less than 10 years -- maybe 5. You hear that from people you know in real life, as well as on customer review sections of the product or forums if you are doing research.

    More guesswork can be eliminated by looking at the country of origin, and again judging by the reputation of that country's workforce and its products. China has never had a reputation for producing quality goods, ever. Japan has always struck outsiders as producing much better quality things.

    So even Westerners have enough knowledge about reputations to discriminate between two major East Asian players. Ditto for Made in Germany vs. Made in Poland. Everyone knows that the Central American countries all have crappy reputations.

    Consumers of the 1950s didn't have to have keen judgement to discern quality from shoddy products -- just imagine if one of them bought an appliance, tool, clothing, etc., that read Made in China. Instant rejection, as well as being dumbfounded and maybe insulted.

    Back then the location markings were regional -- was this Revere Ware pot made in the company's factory in Clinton, IL or the one in Rome, NY? Just imagine that shit reading Made in China!

  5. When I say "artisan" produced goods or services, I mean that they come from artisans (skilled craftspeople), not necessarily that they are branded as "artisanal (TM)" for yuppie consumerist identity purposes.

    What's absurdly overpriced is furniture from IKEA, Design Within Reach, BoConcept, West Elm, etc etc etc. Shoddy fake wood (sawdust bits glued together and compacted like the garbage that it is), and little to no details, ornaments, or working of the surface.

  6. "Swpls can neither afford leisure nor conspicuous consumption, so they compete through awareness of the latest trends: music, fashion, diets, exercise fads, iphone apps, slang/memes, TV"

    Well, music wise, today's music is so lousy and forgettable that even naive kids typically don't develop any real attachment to it anyway. In one ear, out the other with no emotional resonance thus nothing worth caring about and remembering.

    In terms of TV, Agnostic has noted before that serial entertainment (e.g. comic books, radio programs, TV shows) is much more popular in low crime/low outgoingness periods one of which we are in right now. The audience during these time periods is avoidant and cowardly so they prefer drawn out/diffused media that has less immediate impact and power.

    Of course, people still watch a decent amount of TV in higher outgoingness periods but they generally don't get that aborbed in TV shows, not when there were so many exciting songs and movies to enjoy. Also, the nature of TV differs depending on the period; Shows in the 70's-80's were modest and agreeable rather than the angsty sturm and drang junk that's been popular since about 1992.

    Even when 1968-1991 shows depicted some dark aspect of life, at least they featured modest, likable heroes. Not like the nihilistic we're all horrible monsters crap you see now; it's like the chicken or the egg thing, does the sick garbage of today make people worse or did people just get sicker and create this stuff? I think it's a little bit of both.

    No wonder homos are so 'in' these days. They eat this vile culture up.

    I do agree though that people in low outgoingness/high inequality periods are shamelessly trendy and glib. When nothing is sacred and you are swamped everyday by treacherous and cynical assholes violating what's left of common decency, it does make you dejected. Eventually we'll snap out of it.

  7. It should be noted that the audience during an amoral, decadent time period naturally is going to demand media featuring sicko protagonists (to call them the hero or even anti-hero is too kind) since it validates the audiences' narcissism and toxic paranoia.

    Wouldn't want to shame the audience by giving them a real hero that would make them feel inadequate. After all, there's not much difference between the good guys and bad guys so why should any us even put any effort into behaving better? Right?

    Compare this perversion to the media of the 70's and 80's that taught the audience that integrity, honest work and loyalty often paid off. Modern audiences reject those themes as being hokey and unrealistic; nowadays things are so wretched it's hard for people to believe that there ever was a time when you could count on the support and gratitude of kind people to make selfless sacrifice worth your effort.

  8. Sorry to post again but I wanted to finish/defend my previous thought. Since early 90's even when the protagonists are more ostensibly heroic their overall bearing is often humorless, terse and uptight.

    Really, I think that people of sound morals and emotional well being would find the characters in much modern media so unpleasant as to make these shows/movies a chore to sit through.

    I certainly prefer the unselfconscious, more jovial human beings of 70's/80's TV.

  9. A lot of this is just Baumol's cost disease. The labor of skilled artisans has increased in cost but not in productivity. Because it has become relatively more expensive to hire people to do things, and because there have been productivity gains in production of the raw materials, and in instruction (i.e., the internet), the economic signals point increasingly towards DIY.

  10. DIY - I can remember my uncles, dad, etc. doing more home repairs, building extensions and stuff during my childhood.

    I do agree that where I'm at, what I do see a lot more people, particularly Boomer women, doing home improvements to increase property value these days, necessarily doing this themselves but also getting people in to do it for them.
    I think this relates to inequality, as these people have tied up most of their money or debt in their house, and they want to see that improve, more than the competition improves in a competitive market.

    Food prep - within food prep, there seem are more hobbyists who try to make high quality versions of what can be bought cheaply, I think. Like with a lot of these things, I think that's an effect of the market mainly tailoring to cheap stuff, and desire for quality by those people, more than competitiveness. It's not like routine, quality food though, more ostentatious.

    Feryl and TV and cinema - This is some data from Nielsen on TV watching per day, graphed as That shows a linear rise in TV hours per day since the 1950s. Perhaps in the 1950s people were too busy with their comics and radio shows to watch TV?

    On the other hand, GSS has some data on average viewing per day from its respondents (variables TVHOURS and YEAR). About an average of 3 hours per day with no change since 1975, maybe a slight decline in the 1990s to 2000s (perhaps due to internet). Depends on whether you trust Nielsen or self report more I guess.

    On cinema attendence, it obviously peaked back when people didn't have TV - (graph isn't per capita USA scales more normally to other countries). USA only -

    Seems like relatively few people went to the cinema in the 1980s, probably part of why independent movie producers and studios were so successful as agnostic has previously documented. There's a cinema revival in the 1990s, with many of the more silly and bombastic trends agnostic has descriped in cinema to get people back in theatres (and higher costs to attend).

    Less cinema, more TV is how I get the impression Boomers think of their usually 1950s childhoods vs the 1980s, and it seems like it may be accurate. I see a lot of those long form TV shows replacing novels for a less literate audience and replacing crap, huge in the 1980s, long form soap operas like Dynasty or Dallas.

  11. Trends in self reported TV viewing hours are actually negative since 1975 in the GSS sample of Whites aged 20-40 -

    There's a strong relationship with TV watching and age, so an aging population might be expected to watch more TV and the trends might be negative net of age.

    But is that accurate, a combination of people guessing how much they watch plus the rise of SWPLdom that's too good for TV?

    Agnostic basically says that contrary to what elitists claim, the masses often do have the good sense to stay away from the theaters when there's not much worth seeing.

    It should go without saying that entertainment options have exploded since the 80's. Cable in the 80's, video games in the late 80's, the internet in the late 90's, increasing kinds of dicking around offered by phones etc. So obviously TV ratings peaked in the 70's/early 80's.

    Let's not forget adults slumming it by watching cartoons, either. With the exception of Beauty and the Beast (which came out near the end of the decade in 89) there were virtually no animated big hit movies in the late 70's/80's. Parents these days rationalize their immaturity/autism by saying that, well, me and the kids will enjoy it. Thing is, adults actually had more children in the 80's but they didn't use that as an excuse to avoid looking at real human beings.

    Faggy musicals were also dead in the 80's.

    The post 1992 infatuation with East Asia (where people are infantile and disagreeable) also indicates that Westerners really need to break out of their nerd cocoons.

    With regard to some of the cheesy soaps being popular in the 80's, yeah I guess you got me on that. Still, those shows were relatively wholesome compared to some of the post 1992 'edgy' and 'extreme' (read lurid & exploitive) junk that bored people need for stimulation when they are disconnected from their fellow man and from any sense of decency. Look at those medical/cop/criminal shows that feature quick cut, extreme close ups of blood and gore; what does that say about the vacant amorality of today's audience?

    I think that these modern ugly shows/movies/porn/music and so on is going to be very disturbing to us westerners when we we finally escape the current period of high cocooning/high inequality. Dynasty or Three's Company might be cheesy but at least they didn't make you stare into the abyss.The modern degrading filth really does reflect how indulgent and cynical people have been getting since the early 90's.

    By the way, in the 1980's a lot of R rated action/horror movies were indeed gory but it didn't seem so offensive since on screen suffering was minimized and also because the creators went to greater lengths to make the victims sympathetic. It also goes without saying that kids couldn't see this stuff on primetime; TV censors in the 80's were much more restrictive.

    And like I said above, during the crime ridden later 70's and 80's people were pro social and agreeable enough that TV in particular was regarded as light escapist entertainment with mostly likable (or slightly flawed but easy to relate to) heroes.

  13. a lot of R rated action/horror movies were indeed gory but it didn't seem so offensive since on screen suffering was minimized and also because the creators went to greater lengths to make the victims sympathetic.

    That's a mixed bag. Murder -- often gruesome and humiliating -- of tweens was the staple of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and I recall at least one scene in one of the "Poltergeist" remakes in which a child (9 or 10-year old boy) gets killed: he's lured into some supernatural space and never seen again.

    The "Friday the 13th" movies all gave me the impression that each of the teenage/young adult victims was asking for it, either by being a loudmouth/cocky guy or slutty/not very bright girl.

    Slasher movies were a cultural stain on what otherwise was a healthy decade. One almost visualizes reptilian Hollywood producers delighting in all those scenes of nice looking fair-featured youths terrorized and murdered.

  14. "Less cinema, more TV is how I get the impression Boomers think of their usually 1950s childhoods vs the 1980s"

    Right, most movies with a handful of exceptions (like Hitchcock's stuff) were pretty dull in the 40's-mid 60's. Though I try not to be so hard on mid century media since at least it was relatively amiable and certainly preferable to nasty post 1991 trends.

    Agnostic has also pointed out many times that kids in the 40's-early 60's spent a lot of time with a cherished friend. That friend was the bedroom radio which offered camp serials for kids in case the comic books/cartoons weren't enough.

    We do tend to look down on older media as being outdated camp, but really, isn't the humorless, disagreeable media of today sort of a 'reverse' camp in it's sadistic, mean spirited, scatological wallowing?

    Speaking of tasteless culture, does anyone else think it's weird how many autistic annoying jews you see up on screen and the stage lately? Jerry Seinfeld recently admitted that he has such a hard time understanding people that he half seriously wondered if he was autistic.

    I'll take John Candy over Adam Sandler.

  15. on screen suffering was minimized

    Not at all. Every death that I remember involved extreme terror just prior to the kill, an many of the murders were graphically depicted, either the act itself or the subsequent murder scene.

  16. That's a mixed bag. Murder -- often gruesome and humiliating -- of tweens was the staple of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and I recall at least one scene in one of the "Poltergeist" remakes in which a child (9 or 10-year old boy) gets killed: he's lured into some supernatural space and never seen again.

    The "Friday the 13th" movies all gave me the impression that each of the teenage/young adult victims was asking for it, either by being a loudmouth/cocky guy or slutty/not very bright girl.

    Look up the movie Blood Money on Amazon. The writer researched the nature of those movies and he discovered that the biggest hit slasher movies featured themes and tones that appealed to teenage girls and which minimized suffering (with Halloween and Prom Night having very little blood/gore). Thus Prom Night featured lots of girl gossip and disco dancing with a few scenes of murder and rowdy males to thrill the girls and especially the boys.

    He also points out that '78-'84 slasher movies were often a distillation of youth hits of the late 70's like Carrie, Saturday Night Fever, Animal House, The Omen, and the Warriors.

    So it's not like the hit slasher movies were pure exercises in sadisitc sleaze; rather they often feature groups of slightly irreverent but joyful youths carousing, juggling relationships, and defying meddling authorities. The Warriors gang and the Friday the 13th teens both hated killjoy cops. Most of the 80's Friday the 13th's show likable middle class heroines developing relationships. The boyfriends are usually portrayed as earnest but innefectual and naive, which further indicates how much they targeted the female demo.

    The late 60's/earlier 70's horror hits tended to be more sleazy and sadistic.

  17. Also, you haven't seen wallowing in suffering til you've been subject to one of the Saw movies (the first came out in 2004).

    They make an 80's Friday the 13th seem like a Care Bears cartooon.

  18. Feryl: Right

    Sorry, well, cinema visits were much higher in the 1950s than the 1980s was what I meant to say. I don't know how much time people spent on the TV in the 50s - only data I could find showed more TV viewing in the 1980s than the 1950s, but I don't know how reliable it is. See the charts on cinema attendence I linked. 80s is the VHS era.

    I think that matches up with what agnostic has said before about how the 1980s was a flourishing time for independent producers to make exciting personal scaled stuff at the cinema, where the 1930s-1950s Golden Age of Hollywood was more of a period of bombastic large scale epics fuelled by really large audiences. Then you had a lot of that scaling back to be replaced by New Hollywood in the 1960s who didn't do those large scale movies that were fuelled by high audiences at low ticket prices.

    People seem to behave different in each era, but it doesn't seem to affect how much people's behavior in terms of going out and spending time with friends, at the movies, etc. They seem like the behave different in the environments or watch different stuff in the environment. - social measures on the GSS, Whites aged 20-30 - Blacks 20-30

    The variables showing decline in socialisation are with neighbours and church (like the Bowling Alone idea and increase in modern atheism would show). Socialisation with friends and relatives goes up a little, bars stay about the same. Seems more like people behaving different in public spaces than going to them more or less.

  19. Re: DIY

    It used to be fairly common for husbands to plumb and wire their own houses. I'm not sure exactly when "call the professionals" became standard practice, but another change concommitant with nouveau DIY-ism is the loss of community and, hence, the untrustworthiness of professionals. Get estimates from your area plumbing/HVAC/electrical pros on just about anything and you'll see what I mean. They're all over the place and some of them are out to gouge the uneducated homeowner and deliver slipshod workmanship in the bargain.

    The resurgence of DIY partially came about because dealing with these tradespeople became an iffier proposition than in the past. It's following the path laid down by car mechanics and even quickie oil change places.

  20. "The variables showing decline in socialisation are with neighbours and church (like the Bowling Alone idea and increase in modern atheism would show). Socialisation with friends and relatives goes up a little, bars stay about the same. Seems more like people behaving different in public spaces than going to them more or less."

    Like your plausible insight that Gen X-ers/Millienials are much less apt to start a bar brawl than Boomers.

    In terms of church/religiosity, I suspect that quite a few Gen X-ers have at least some kind of religious belief but not necessarily Christianity (or if it is Christianity it won't be a big/traditional denomination).

    The hypocrisy and shallowness of spiritual/moral conviction that Gen X-ers often associate with visible/traditional religion is probably due to Silent Gen./Baby Boomers being ostensibly Catholic/Lutheran/Born Again Evangelist etc. but conveniently rationalizing selfish behavior instead making a honest effort to actually follow religious doctrine and behave with more modesty and kindness.

    Also, the current culture has pathetically given up on actually shaming people for bad behavior, so Silent Gen./Baby Boomers (who have been in practice heathens for decades) who dominate organized religion are well aware of the sins of their flock but have become cowardly in their unwillingness to remind the greying pew occupants of their greed and hedonism, their culpability for the errors they've made, and the fact that they have a long way to go to make amends for the damage they've wrought in post 1960 America.

    So you end up with a laughably weak, shallow version of religion being espoused at the majority of churches/synagogues. There is very little fire and brimstone preaching actually being done anymore, so as not to offend the aging Me Generation who know in their hearts that they've been miserable failures at restraining their dark impulses.

    Also, I agree with some of the commenters who pointed out that the DIY revolution can be attributed at least partially to the falling standards of professionalism in products and services.

    Do you really want Jose installing something? If the 'experts' were as honest and reliable as they were in say, 1952, people would be more enthusiastic about trusting them. This current mistrust/terrible service is of course both a product and an effect of the current high inequality period that intensifies greed, a lack of pro social norms, fatalism, and paranoia.

  21. I am in the midst of a major kitchen remodel. I have done most of the home improvement projects we have done in this house myself, but this one was just too big and too involved to tackle myself. But one interesting thing I found out when researching it was that in my state (Massachusetts) it would actually have been illegal.

    Massachusetts building authorities are forbidden from granting permits for electrical or plumbing work to unlicensed individuals - even if they own the home. So the only way you can DIY here is to do it on the sly - no permits, no inspections, possible fines if they find out or problems at resale. Typical Massachusetts - where everything not forbidden is compulsory...

  22. "another change concommitant with nouveau DIY-ism is the loss of community and, hence, the untrustworthiness of professionals."

    That's lurking in the background, although the branding by the DIY-ers themselves and from the companies that cater to them, is not so much about "Tired of getting gouged by shady, greedy contractors? Go your own way, and cut out the middleman." That's too practical.

    It's more about how awesome you are, you can start and finish any project, no matter how little training you started out with. You researched it, you bought the right tools, now "Let's do this" (as the Home Depot slogan goes).

    The tone is more like self-assured grandiosity than cynical pragmatism.

  23. "within food prep, there seem are more hobbyists who try to make high quality versions of what can be bought cheaply, I think."

    That's a counter-trend, but not very common. The single most dramatic change in meal preparation is the shift toward having someone else make it. The '80s were a transition time -- mothers were still making home-cooked meals, but felt more and more "frazzled" (the buzzword) by cooking, cleaning, and careering all in the same day. By the '90s, the take-out and frozen/microwave trend really took off.

    That's something Millennials don't realize that they missed out on -- the assumption that Mom was going to be making a home-cooked meal more or less every night. The tail end of Gen X can still remember when it would have felt perverse for mothers to rely so heavily on take-out and easy-prep meals that call only for heating, not the alchemy of true cooking.

    You guys would have seen the old way of cooking among your grandparents, but how often was that?

    The post-Millennial generation won't even have that faint awareness. Their parents are X-ers, who don't cook, and their grandparents are Boomers, who don't cook either.

  24. "and arts and crafts (sewing, beads, music)."

    If this was the extent of DIY, it wouldn't put folks out of work (or inflate the DIY-ers egos). Crafts (as opposed to trades) are hard to make a living from in the first place.

    You mentioned sewing -- I remember how common it used to be for a mother, aunt, or grandmother to hem jeans and pants to get the inseam right (they're usually not perfect off the rack). That's a fairly basic and unskilled task, though, so why do it yourself these days? You take it to some place that does "alterations" (90% of which must be simple hemming of the inseam).

    Someone who could have made a living before as a tailor now has to ask for much lower wages as a mere jean-hemmer.

  25. Another thing about the shadiness of professionals -- I wonder how much of the "Made in USA" items are made in America by Mexicans (legal or illegal). If people who've bought and used the item swear by its durability and reliability, then it must have been good old white people making it after all.

    But in today's climate, there's definitely a niche to be filled by branding your product as "Made in USA," while having it made to poor standards by Chinese or Mexicans working here.


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