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We all have servants now

Technology lets us summon home help at the tap of a screen

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

 Montego Bay, Jamaica

When the Kennedy clan were children, JFK and his siblings would tear off their clothes before leaping from the pier at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts — safe in the knowledge their servants would pick up their discarded clothes.

That used to strike me as the ultimate in entitlement before I ended up here in a hotel in Jamaica. I’m being waited on hand and foot in a way that wouldn’t have disgraced the Kennedys — or a 19th–century duke. Someone’s just rung to ask when would be a good time to fill my fridge with beer. A driver is waiting to take me on a tour of Montego Bay. When a friend, also staying here, forgot her diary, her butler brought it from her room to our breakfast table.

I thought this level of service was confined to holiday resorts and then I suddenly realised that I, like much of the British population, am now dependent on a new boom in servants. My credit card bill is largely filled with payments to servants: to the Amazon delivery-man who delivered a lawnmower to my office last week; to the Uber driver who drove me and my lawnmower back home; to the Deliveroo courier who brought my sushi in the evening.


Paradoxically, modern technology has taken us back to the 1950s, when the butcher, baker and candlestick-maker delivered straight to your door. I haven’t done a big supermarket shop inside a shop for several years, now that I depend on a series of charming Tesco servants to deliver it for me.

Of course, they’re not called servants any more. I can’t think of anyone — even those with full-time staff — who use the word ‘servant’ any more. ‘Daily’, ‘cleaning lady’, ‘the charming man who helps me out with the garden’… They’re all euphemisms for the verboten ‘s’ word — ‘servant’ still carries connotations of its Latin derivation: ‘servus’, meaning ‘slave’.

The new servants — from Uber, Amazon, Tesco etc — are fundamentally different to their Downton Abbey ancestors. Rather than working for one person, they divide up their time between thousands of different contractors like me and anyone else with an Uber app. But for a moment, that Uber driver was my temporary chauffeur; the Deliveroo courier my temporary cook. Because these temporary servants aren’t in full-time employment for an individual, however, the old-fashioned, servile quality of being a servant — and the deference that went with it — has disappeared, thank God.

Of course, there are problems with some parts of the new servant economy, or the gig economy, to give it its hipper name: low wages, and often no pensions or holiday pay. But they are still jobs all the same — part of the reason why employment, it’s just been announced, is at its highest since 1971. In January, there were 32.7 million people employed in the UK — a 76 per cent employment rate.

And in less class-obsessed countries than Britain, there is a great pride in service jobs. At Sandals, my Jamaican hotel, job vacancies are massively oversubscribed; the chain is the biggest employer in the Caribbean.

The collapse in British servant numbers came with the second world war, with the slaughter of so many and — after a huge hike in tax — the inability to pay staff. In 1851, there were 115,000 women between 15 and 20 in London and its suburbs; 40,000 of them were in domestic service. Between 1911 and 1921, the number of servants in London’s commuter belt halved. As the number of in-house servants fell, so did the average household size. In 1842, there were an average of 5.8 people in each British home; that’s now down to 1.9 people.

Millions of people were freed from domestic service after the war. And a rich handful found themselves with new chores on their hands. Roger Mortimer (1909-91), the racing correspondent and author of Dear Lupin, described how he ‘was brought up with seven or more indoor servants, including a butler and a footman. Now, at 76, I do the grate, fill the log baskets, clean my shoes, make my bed, cook and wash up my breakfast, wash my car, do endless weeding fatigues in the garden, dig up huge piles of ground elder, join huge queues at the surgery.’ Nothing that TaskRabbit — the website which finds you gardeners, handymen, cleaners and deliverymen — couldn’t sort out nowadays.

Servants have been effectively outsourced and democratised. No longer are they tied to an eternal life of drudgery with a single employer. Instead, they dip in and out of service as circumstances dictate, and need never share a roof with the people paying for that service. And no longer is it a small elite who depend on their own dedicated servant class. These days, anyone can summon their own temporary servant at the tap of a screen, for the price of a takeaway pizza.


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