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Outsourcing the American Home


There was a time when the typical American family was reasoably self-sufficient. Homes were smaller and less technically complicated. Full-time mothers took care of the family during the week, and Dad would give up a few of his precious weekend hours to take care of home repair.

Neighbors might even lend a hand for a big project. Today, we regularly need to bring other people into our homes to ensure that our most basic day to day tasks are taken care of. Slowly but surely the American home has been outsourced. The American home is more outsourced than the most American corporations. It didn't happen overnight, but today just about every home in America is reliant on an army of outsourced workers. Let's take a look at the common tasks in the home and how they have evolved over the past few decades:

Childcare: Children start going to school or a child care center much earlier than in the past. In the 50s and early 60s a few children went to kindergarten. Most started in 1st grade, when they were 6 years old. Early childhood education programs now start around age 3, but some private programs start as early as a few months. If you can afford it, your home may also employ an au pair to help raise your child.

Meals: In your great grandmother's day, you grew the wheat in the field, ground it into flour, made the flour into bread and the bread became part of a meal. For generations, our kitchens have become increasingly "automatic", with more and more sophisticated gadgets to make out meals more quickly. That combined with more highly processed supermarket food to make meals easier, and easier to prepare. Which was ironic. We were spending a lot more on kitchen equipment, so that we could spend a lot less time in the kitchen. In the 60s dry pasta and bottled tomato sauce were a revolution in home cooking. That evolved into microwave frozen lasagna in the 90's. Today, you order out pizza, and microwave the leftovers the next day. Is that an exaggeration? According to Pew Research's report on our eating habits, 66% of American adults eat out at least once a week. If you're younger (18-29) that rises to 77%.

Cleaning: The cleaning of the American home has also changed dramatically over the years. Since the 60's the American home has been automating cleaning tasks (washers, dryers, and robotic vacuum cleaners), and creating sophisticated chemical agents that supposedly do most of the work for us. While few of us can afford a full-time maid, the "cleaning lady" has become common place in middle America.

Repairs: A long time ago, the husband and father of the home was supposed to keep it in good running order. Today, even if you have the time you probably don't have the technical expertise. If the air conditioner, the water heater, washing machine, plasma TV or home computer breaks we probably don't have the skills or the tools to fix it. It just makes sense to bring someone in to take care of repairs.

Lawns: Mowing the lawn used to be something junior did after school or on the weekend. With more homework during the week, and tutoring on the weekend to get into the right high school and college, there's no time to do the lawn. So, someone else arrives every week to move the grass and chemically treat the lawn.

Pools: Before the 60s, a pool was something only the very rich could afford. But the migration of the US population to warmer states meant that more families had new home with a pool that needed to be cleaned, scrubbed, and chemically treated. It also gave you a deck that need to be cleaned, filters to be replaced and a heating system to maintain.

How do you outsource your family? What's different today than 50 years ago that made us spend money on having strangers take care of our needs? The key reason was that there was a immense shift in the labor market after the 60s. Women became a regular part of the professional workforce, and the two income family slowly became the dominant model for the American family. Today, 54% of all married couples have dual income. In the top rated show "Mad Men", we see a bygone era with a traditional family: a working husband, a full-time wife/mother and a couple of kids. Today, this "traditional" family is only 7% of American families. The days of free "mother care" and dads that can take care of the home with just a hammer and a screwdriver are over.

We're now in the second decade of the Twentieth Century. We've been outsourcing in our homes and in our corporations for decades. Clearly, we've personally benefited from both decisions. Many families would not have been able to operate without turning to takeout foods and inventive childcare solutions. Corporations from IBM to Walmart have lowered the cost of their products and increased profitability through the use of outsourcing . But individual homes and big corporations are both thinking about the consequences of the decisions made in past decades. America is grappling with health consequences from too much junk food and too little monitoring of the family diet, and Corporations are trying to make sense of the mixed from the last decade of outsourcing. Outsourcing is never fully good or bad. Both at home and in the corporation we have overused this single tool, because it was a quick and convenient way of getting things done. But now we've learned about what works and what doesn't. The challenge for outsourcing in American for the next decade is how well we apply what we've learned!

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