Among the most intriguing questions of our time is, “What will happen to the British economy when cheap Chinese labour becomes expensive?” The prosperity we have enjoyed for the past ten years is built partly on cheap money and gung-ho borrowing, and partly on cheap imports, mainly from China.
At the same time, our domestic economy has become quirky to the point of eccentricity. Manufacturing has shrunk, though that loss has been considerably offset by the roaring success of our financial services industry. It is, however, the rest of the service economy that should concern us – the buzzing hive of New Age holistic healers, hair colourists, dog shampooers, and baby minders. Tasks that used to be performed by bob-a-jobbing boy scouts – “Tidy your garden, missus?” – are now performed full-time by adults who, in an earlier age, would have been making things in factories.
Will Hutton, sage and economist – if that is not a contradiction in terms – says it is wrong to dismiss these activities as mere froth. They add significantly to the quality of life in, wait for it, a very real sense. That may be so, but they are a luxury of an economy built on the efforts of others, thousands of miles distant, who will not forever be so bountiful with their gifts. We are constantly reminded that, in order to survive, we must compete in a global economy. Picking up leaves from each other’s gardens will not enable us to do that.
When the great apes of the forest groom each other, lips protruding with concentration as they pluck each flea from the back of another member of the colony, they are no doubt adding to their quality of life in a very real sense. Who wants fleas? But the apes have only each other to concern them. Food and shelter come free, courtesy of nature.
For the time being, we are, as apes, grooming each other, but we should not kid ourselves that this is the stuff of a serious competitive economy. To return to an earlier subject, we have too many fleas living off the backs of bigger fleas. It is a fact – and here I brace myself for catcalls of “misogynist” – that this phenomenon appeals far more to women than to men. We are often told – in fact it has become the unquestioned wisdom of the age – that women are wonderful multi-taskers.
As Peggy Lee sang, “I can wash out 44 pairs of socks and have ’em on the line; I can starch and iron two dozen shirts before you can count from one to nine; I can slip up a great big dip-up of lard from a drippings can, throw it in the skillet, do my shopping and be back before it melts in the pan – ’cause I’m a woman W-O-M-A-N.”
Of course, few modern women care to do those things – apart from any other consideration, lard is lethal and so, for that matter, are starched shirts – but you get the picture. Women are peculiarly omnicompetent in a way that is denied to men.
And yet, it is women who employ – usually other women – as personal trainers, shoppers, housemaids, nannies, manicurists, beauticians, interior designers and, that most modern of servants, the lifestyle guru. There are even women who will, for a consideration, help other women to manage the contents of their handbags. Why? Because, we are told, working women lack the time to do those things for themselves and, this is something we are not told, trophy wives lack the inclination.
And so we have, as a bustling part of our economy, a new servant class who provide simple everyday tasks, often for people who themselves perform wholly dispensable tasks, such as public relations, but are better paid. Note, however, that the new servants see themselves not as menials, but as professional people and, to prove the point, they do not have customers, but clients.
Where will it all end? Heaven knows. And I mean that literally. For the latest arrival at the service party is the Superior Grave Service, launched by Denise Newman, 52, and her friend Mandy Boyle, 46, of Hornchurch, Essex. For a fee, they will tend the graves of departed relatives on behalf of busy people. They promise to offer a “respectful and dignified service for clients wishing to remember their loved ones any day of the year”.
What is the betting that, if the venture succeeds, these two Essex ladies will be able to branch out into ancillary services, such as laying bunches of flowers and sentimental cards at the scenes of road accidents and murders on behalf of clients too busy to actively share the pain of others?