Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Recovering the Gilded Age

Income inequality in the U.S. is now the worst it has ever been since the 1890's. While the economic consequences of this are grim enough, the social consequences of this situation are just beginning to emerge. While middle-class parents still cling to the notion that taking on massive debt to send their kids to college makes sense, they may be wrong. Why struggle to become an unemployed architect? Why not, instead, learn the fine art of sucking up to rich people? Here's a fascinating report by Max Abelson of Bloomberg Businessweek:

Christopher Ely is prone to philosophizing about his life's work. "You should be invisible, to a certain point," he explains carefully, wearing a navy blue pinstriped suit and well-polished shoes. "You exist, of course, but you don't." Ely, of course, is describing the secrets of the manservant trade. As one of New York's most famous butlers, he's enjoyed a storied career that began as a footman at Buckingham Palace and led to a job as the butler and estate manager for philanthropist and power widow Brooke Astor. Ely, 48, does not use the term "manservant." The word, he says, "has such connotation to it."

This is one of the many tips Ely is preparing to pass on to the next generation of butlers, housekeepers, chauffeurs, governesses, housemen, personal assistants, laundresses, and chefs. This week he and Manhattan's French Culinary Institute inaugurate the Estate Management Studies program. Tired of hearing people tell him, "We couldn't get good staff," Ely says, he set out to reinvigorate the entire domestic-service industry with a curriculum that combines its ancient hallmarks—efficiency, decorum, and discretion—with what the institute calls the "contemporary skills necessary to manage modern-day residences."

Ely and FCI founder and Chief Executive Officer Dorothy Cann Hamilton have already developed courses on laundry, household cleaning, and the "practice of being a private chef"—25 hours and $1,750 each—in addition to a $1,995, 30-hour "culinary essentials" tutorial. Ely believes he can enlighten and "elevate" his students through his intimate knowledge of linen steaming, towel folding, seafood canapĂ© preparation, and the all-important butlering tenet: invisibility. "It's not like a waiter in a restaurant that's bothering you every two seconds," he says firmly. In all, the FCI is planning a 12-course curriculum.

It also expects a regiment of willing pupils. After a recent hiccup, the help business is on the rise. "It's incredible," says Keith Greenhouse, CEO of the Pavillion Agency, a New York staff placement firm. In the first quarter of 2011, he says, Pavillion received 487 job orders, compared with 283 in the same period in 2009. Through the agency, one young family is looking for someone to "work for both Mr. in his business and Mrs. at home" and "respond to the family's needs at odd hours." A "formal Park Avenue family" wants a cook who can clean silver. The CEO of a fashion house needs a "formally trained housekeeper" to supplant the live-in nanny. According to Ely, a "good" butler should command a salary of about $80,000 a year.

The resurgence of rich people has triggered a rebirth elsewhere in the industry. "When we hit last summer, that's when all of a sudden the economy really changed. And so by the time we were into September of last year, the placement orders went through the roof. It was like, 'Oh, my God,'" says Charles MacPherson, founder of Charles MacPherson Associates, a Toronto-based butlering academy and placement agency. "People just needed to move on," he says, "and start living their lives again." MacPherson isn't alone in his gratitude for rich people remembering just how rich they are. "From September 2008 until January or maybe even February 2009, I doubt that I made a placement. Not one," says Mary Louise Starkey, president of Starkey International Institute for Household Management in Denver. Starkey, whose organization refers to her either as "Mrs. Starkey" or "the First Lady of Service," says her 2011 first-quarter revenues have "darn near close to doubled" over the same period last year.

While the GOP will surely applaud this resurgence in domestic service employment, it may have one consequence they don't like. It may turn out to be a boon for the hated PBS, who can now remarket "Upstairs, Downstairs" as a contemporary drama.


terenz said...

I remember Upstairs, Downstairs. What a great series!

Motivated In Ohio said...

With wealth inequality at it's all time high, this is one of the few growth industries in this country. That and pot farming which is being insourced from Mexico. This nation should be so proud.