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America's New Servant Class

Income inequality is creating a boom in the servant industry. Welcome to the world of Downton Abbey.

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In America, many people still think of household servants as something belonging to a distant age, a time less equal and democratic than our own, like the Britain of Downton Abbey. But as we’ve entered a second Gilded Age, the clock seems to be turning back, and the super-rich are increasingly relying on servants to feed, clothe and make them comfy. The economic "recovery" is not producing nearly enough jobs, but the servant sector is certainly growing.

Agencies are swamped with calls for butlers, chefs, drivers and other staff. What’s a private jet without your own flight attendant? What's a yacht without a massage therapist? According to Claudia Kahn, founder of a Los Angeles-based a staffing agency, the rich are requesting "Downton Abbey-type service” to match what they see on TV. She notes that a housekeeper for a zillionaire may earn up to $60,000 a year (the industry median salary is less than $20,000), but a “lady’s maid” can take in $75,000. Full-time butlers can earn $70,000 a year, and some who travel around with a family on yachts or private jets could earn as much as $200,000 a year.

Vincent Minuto, who caters to wealthy clients in the Hamptons, recommends one housekeeper for every 3,000 square feet of space. If you are timeshare mogul David Siegel, you’ll need at least 16 maids for your 50,000-square-foot home in Windermere, Florida.

In New York, would-be manservants can study culinary and laundry essentials in a course taught by Brooke Astor’s former butler, who plans to “revolutionize” the butler business by making students understand why a drycleaner can’t possibly do a proper ironing job. Steam presses are just so common! Across the pond, the number of domestic servants is also going through the roof. A recent study conducted by Wetherell, a real estate agent to the megarich, revealed that there are more servants working in the tony Mayfair section of London than there were 200 years ago. Ninety percent of the 4,500 residents who own houses, and 80 percent of apartment-dwellers have servants. Throughout the U.K., the demand for butlers doubled between 2010 and 2012.

The servant class has been growing over the last few decades for several reasons. For the middle class, the post-war program of husband working and wife staying home to vacuum and whatnot was the common, if not especially agreeable arrangement (as Betty Friedan memorably described in The Feminine Mystique). This was a departure from earlier times, when even lower-middle-class households often employed servants. In effect, technology and better job prospects for would-be domestic workers turned wives and mothers into unpaid employees responsible for all domestic duties.

But as women began to work more outside the home, and the hours worked for individual employees, particularly in the U.S., grew longer, households were thrown into chaos. Beds, after all, do not magically make themselves. The housework had to be done, and even when men pitched in, the truth is that both husband and wife were often working too hard and too long to properly attend to domestic chores. Despite a slight stigma in America linked to hiring domestic staff in the post-war period, part-time cleaners and nannies became the only way to restore sanity for many. 

The most recent uptick, however, is more about income inequality. In places like the Middle East, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, it has long been typical to import domestic workers from poorer countries. But that trend is spreading. In the U.K., it’s no longer Jeeves making the tea, but Vlad from Romania. In the U.S., nearly half of maids and housekeepers are not native-born, with Latin Americans dominating. (A big chunk of the wealthy is happy to support mass immigration of cheap labor so that these workers can continue to be underpaid.)