Life’s No Downton for Will and Kate: The Economics of Household Staff

Life’s No Downton for Will and Kate: The Economics of Household Staff

downtonabbey_2419378bIssues about whether a hereditary monarchy should exist aside, I have nothing against the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. They seem cool, and they seem to work pretty hard as well. They do more than their share to bring tourism into Britain. It appears that they are hands-on parents to their kid, who is pretty cute. It would never have occurred to me that they would be the employers from hell, but when I first saw the ad they posted for a housekeeper, that thought did cross my mind:

Here’s a snippet of it:

“Housekeeper sought for a large family home in Norfolk… Main duties will include: cleaning all areas of the house to a high standard; caring for and maintaining the home owners’ clothing; cleaning silverware and glassware; purchasing groceries and general provisions for the house; and dealing with deliveries.  On occasions, the role will also involve the preparation of meals, assisting with childcare and caring for dogs.”

My first thought was that William and Kate want an awful lot for their money, whatever it is that they are paying. Being a ‘housekeeper’, ordering groceries, doing housework and prepping some meals is one thing. Adding on ‘caring for maintaining clothing (which I would guess would not mean just throwing in a few loads of laundry) and keeping the silverware gleaming, the kids happy and the dogs fed is quite another. Yes, you can argue that many parents do plenty of child care and housework, but few would suggest they could do all of that in a large country home and keep ‘all areas of the house to a high standard’ very easily.

Thing is, I watch Downton Abbey, so I do know how much work it takes to do all that the Royals require. There is a butler who attends to the big picture, and supervises the footmen who clean silver; a cook, assisted by kitchenmaids, who orders groceries and does food prep; a lady’s maid to attend to the countess’s clothing and a butler to attend to the earl’s. There are also lots of housemaids to do the cleaning and the scutwork. It takes a bit of a village.

Then again, I realize, as do the royals apparently, that things have moved on quite a bit since the 1920s which is when Downton is set. Industrialization has spread through the developed world, and the demand for labor has increased. Given the opportunities elsewhere, it is no longer cheap to acquire a domestic staff, which means that the average aristocrat (or even the average royal) gets a lot less for their money than they did 9 or 10 decades ago.

To put some numbers on to this, I went to the ‘World Top Income Database’ from the Paris School of Economics.  There I got data on the average income of the ‘bottom 90 percent’ of U.K. workers in 1919 (data was not available for the 1920s, but it is a reasonable proxy)as well as in 2012 (the last year data for which data is available). The data series for the two are not exact, given that the first is for all workers (including those under the age of majority) while the second is for adults only, but the trend is clear enough: real wages have increased a ton over the time period.

As of 1919, the bottom 90 percent of U.K. workers was earning what in  4,996 British Pounds a year (about $7,480 in U.S. dollars), while by 2012 that had increased to 13,845 pounds ($20,731) – an increase of 177 percent (data are in constant 2012 dollars). Put another way, William and Kate could have gotten 2.8 workers for the price of one if they were operating a century or so ago (that the Downton era aristocracy could afford such huge staffs compared to today also speaks to the fact that their own incomes have been diminished by taxes and changing times).

So do I think that William and Kate are really the employers from hell? Of course not. They seem to live in the real world and would probably be able to cope with the fact that if one of the dogs trails in a mess, their hard-working housekeeper may well have to take care of that rather than fussing with the glassware on a particular day. As well, I also do not believe that workers, in Britain, or elsewhere in the developed world, have it made and are overcompensated. The last decade has seen wage gains eroded in Britain, in North American and in much of the world, and that’s a serious problem.

Still, all that aside, it is interesting to see that workers have made some strides. That might not make life any easier for the particular housekeeper that takes the job on offer, but it is a reminder that things have changed at least a little.

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