Today’s entry into that viral pantheon attempts to answer whether millennials are outsourcing their adulthoods. Maureen O’Connor writes persuasively that “we are living at a time of unprecedented convenience. Any chore can be outsourced. FlyCleaners for laundry, Uber for driving, TaskRabbit for, well, anything. … And if you don’t know what you want from the world, you can outsource decision-making, too.” Meal kit services like HelloFresh and clothing subscription boxes like Stitch Fix theoretically remove the need to make Big Adult Decisions like what’s for dinner or which new trendy skirt to pick. But if millennials are outsourcing the markers of adulthood that we pantomimed when we played house as children, O’Connor asks—if “adulting” skills like fixing a leaky sink or changing a tire “become optional or outright eccentric”—then what are the new benchmarks of adulthood?
Enter the next millennial truism: that careerism defines us and that, as we forgo grocery shopping or buying a house, our markers of progress through life are mostly work- or money-related. To O’Connor’s peers, adulthood is “as much about self-sufficiency as self-direction,” self-sufficiency being defined not as doing your own chores, but as “earning enough to abandon your roommates, afford travel, pay off student loans, or avoid credit-card debt … in the name of feeling free.” It’s a seductive thesis, and, speaking as someone who spends too much money on GrubHub and too much time thinking about work, I see a certain amount of truthiness in it. But it’s also a conclusion that, like most attempts to describe the motivations of 71 million people, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
O’Connor cites people like Kylie Jenner (of the infamous single carrot order) and her own friend, who was willing to pay $50 for the delivery of a burrito during a rainstorm, as proof that “there is a strange and perhaps unnatural comfort when no material object is unavailable, if you’re willing to fork over enough cash.” Millennials as a generation theoretically avail themselves of that comfort on a regular and consistent basis, to the point that outsourcing is the default and choosing inconvenience is a statement. With an app for every chore we don’t want to do, we are now apparently delaying or discarding the part of adulthood that demands we take up the task of clothing and feeding ourselves, thus redefining what exactly adulthood entails. But consider for a moment what O’Connor is positing: A generation that is uniquely (and empirically) burdened by student loan debt and stagnating wages is simultaneously one that is uniformly willing to spend $30 to Postmates an onion. The proof: Her friends have done it. That perhaps she has self-selected into a group of peers that is not only willing but has the ability to fork over that cash is not considered, nor is the fact that most people actually don’t have the means to act like this.
O’Connor also forgets that outsourcing chores is hardly a new phenomenon. For centuries, the wealthy and middle class have outsourced their domestic labor to hired help, who did everything from rearing children to meal planning to picking up the toilet paper that we can now order on Amazon. Until the mid-20th century, domestic service was the largest category of women’s paid labor. Now maids and housekeeping cleaners account for less than 1 percent of the total workforce—a fairly dramatic decline that partially accounts for why middle-class families feel more pressed for time than their predecessors. TaskRabbit and Seamless and Hello Fresh are basically substitutions for the domestic service that the middle class relied on until fairly recently. Now, rather than have live-in help, many of us contract out for those services through a third-party app.
Of course, it’s uncomfortable to think about the fact that millions of us have apps on our phone that allow us to call a servant on demand, but that’s the reality of the situation. The mistake O’Connor makes is assuming that it’s a new situation, when it’s really just dividing, automating, and scaling up a system that already existed. Rather than have two or three maids you work with for years, now you can have a faceless array of couriers perform menial tasks. In some ways, that’s made domestic help more accessible. In others, it’s turned the people who do this work into nameless automatons who perform one task and then leave, never to be seen again.
For O’Connor’s idea that outsourcing labor constitutes a delaying or reconfiguring of adulthood to bear out, it would mean that the wealthy who have never done their own chores are eternal children. Which, maybe! But that’s not the argument she seems to be making. Rather, it’s that, “if ‘adulting’ describes the things adults do, then ‘adulting’ now includes ordering GrubHub to your desk at WeWork while waiting for Amazon to deliver dental floss, which you will use while washing your face with whatever Birchbox sent this month.” And sure, that describes some adults. The problem with O’Connor’s essay—and with this entire genre of personal-essay-as-millennial-diagnosis pieces—is not that it’s not worthwhile to describe those adults. The problem is that in presenting those adults as avatars of a generation, it neglects whole swaths of millennials who still buy their groceries and cook dinner because they have to, and it gives the affluent outsourcers more credit for historical novelty than they deserve.