Once, only the wealthy paid other people to perform their most personal tasks: finding mates, raising (or even having) children, making meals.
Now those professionals have become available to the upper-middle and middle classes. We hire people to name our children and love our parents, shop for the gifts we give and walk our dogs. We even hire people to help us figure out what it is that we want. (That's right, you can grow up to be a wantologist.)
But these are complicated transactions, and we all need to pay attention, according to UC Berkeley sociology professor Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of the new book "The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times."
Hochschild, who interviewed more than 100 people for her book, is careful not to judge these services "that reach into the heart of our emotional lives" or the people who employ these strangers. And she acknowledges, "We are not going back. We don't want to."
The stories of the ordinary people she talked to reveal much about how we live today: what it means that, in large measure, "village life" has become so commercialized.
"These services are only likely to proliferate in a world that undermines community, disparages government, marginalizes nonprofits and believes in the superiority of what's for sale," Hochschild writes.
So how, she asks, do we go forward? We each must figure out what is too personal to outsource; we have to understand what we cherish and hold on to it.
Consider: The woman who hires a love coach but insists it's for her alone to sort through the Match.com replies. The dad who decides that he alone will put on his 5-year-old's birthday party, even when the parents of her friends hire professionals. The bride who hands almost every detail over to a planner but insists on choosing her dress with her mom because that, to her, is too personal.
"In the face of the market's de-personalization of our bonds with others, we do what we can, consciously or not, to re-personalize them, to make the market feel less like a market," Hochschild concludes.
The author of such books as "The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home" is not just an observer. She came to "The Outsourced Self" in part through her experience seeking care for an elderly aunt who lived 3,000 miles away. She sees her research as a bit of the canary in the coal mine — an early warning of just how much we're giving over to strangers.
Market forces are everywhere in our intimate lives: turning the dating game into a numbers game, for example. One relationship coach in her book calls the Internet the world's biggest love mall. (In 2009, Match.com reported 56 million introductory emails, Hochschild writes.)
The nonprofit International Coaching Federation reports that there are more than 20,000 coaches for life, leadership, business and other fields. And then there are the people we hire to offer specialized services: not just a babysitter but also perhaps a driver or someone to teach a baby to sleep through the night.
Still, some things we keep for ourselves. The people Hochschild interviewed have drawn their lines in the sand, the place where outsourcing felt unacceptable. Here are a few of them:
• April, who tells Hochschild that she felt committed to providing breast milk for her children, even when she was feverishly working. But April wanted to be a successful professional and a relaxed mother. Over time, she became "a savvy and apparently unambivalent shopper in the service mall." She had hired a nanny, a consultant to find the right summer camp, a bicycle trainer and a driver for her children, among others.
• Michael, who lives in a San Francisco neighborhood where kids' parties are put on by a planner. But Michael asked why have a party "if you're going to hire a stranger who doesn't even know your kid to plan it?" Michael's effort, readers might guess, did not go so well; in fact, an observing neighbor told him he ought to leave such things to the "experts."
• Rachel and Roger, who likely would have divorced without Sophie, a therapist who was part of their lives for three decades. And they've got plenty of company: Four in 10 married couples get some therapy, Hochschild writes. While it's rare for it to last the entire marriage, Sophie was essential to helping Rachel let him go when he was dying of cancer.
The marketplace is here to stay, Hochschild said, and that's not all bad. For her elderly aunt, Elizabeth, she found Shawn, in whose hands "my aunt became the kind, bright, funny and, for the most part, good-humored person of my childhood memory." And for her part, Elizabeth "totally forgot the time she had passionately refused the idea of 'a stranger in the house.'"