The Model T economy and the wealth-work economy

At Yuval Levin’s suggestion, I read Boomers, by Helen Andrews. One of the accusations she makes is that Boomers are responsible for an economy based on servitude. She writes,

The fastest-growing jobs in America are in “wealth work,” that is, the servant class for the metropolitan elite. The only thing worse than spending your adult life as a yoga instructor or dog groomer is living in a city with no one to be yoga instructors and dog groomers for.

She refers to a piece by Marc Muro and Jacob Whitin in July of 2019.

many American cities are brimming with an explosion of low-end employment that has brought some three million workers into mostly low-paid, often-precarious service arrangements helping the well-off walk the dog, clean the house, cook dinner, manage money, and stay fit.

They have the statistics to back up these claims. They credit the term “wealth work” to economics journalist Cristopher Rugaber and MIT economist David Autor. Note that in 2020 the virus undermined the viability of many personal services (although not all–consider home delivery).

In 2011, I wrote,

In an economy where some folks are very rich and many folks are unemployed, why are there not more personal servants? Why don’t Sergey Brin and Bill Gates have hundreds of people on personal retainer?

It turns out that I was on the right track. When the economy finally returned to full employment, it was with a large number of personal service workers.

The workers who produced the Model T could afford to buy what they produced. In a wealth-work economy, the people who can afford the personal services and the people who provide them belong to different classes.

One of my intellectual influences was The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson. He depicts a future world in which there are “Vickies,” who work hard (at white-collar jobs) and consume custom products, and “Thetes,” who rarely work and consume cheap, generic goods and services. I have interpreted recent economic evolution through that lens. I could have titled this post “What I believe now: Vickies and Thetes.”

But wealth-work is an emergent phenomenon. The Boomers did not design our current economy. I will have more to say about the Andrews book in a subsequent post.