Hire a 'Wantologist'? Our Wild New Service Economy
Life + Money

Hire a 'Wantologist'? Our Wild New Service Economy


Don’t know what you want out of life? No problem. Hire a wantologist!

This new profession actually exists in 2012. Just fork over a little cash (a couple hundred an hour or so) and this individual will help you figure out your most important goals in life – and help you get closer to achieving them.

Sound like a bunch of hooey? Consider Esther James, a wantologist in San Jose, California. She has a PhD in psychology from NYU, practiced for twenty years as a Jungian psychologist, trained as an executive coach – earning $250 an hour – and has now transitioned into full-time life coaching in the wake of the economic downturn, as she explained to sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Hochschild, based at the University of California, Berkeley, profiles James and many other personal service providers in an enlightening new book, The Outsourced Life, which describes how the market has risen to meet the needs of increasingly harried and needy Americans.

To Hochschild, James explained the job of wantologist this way: “First you ask your client, ‘Are you floating or navigating toward your goal?’ A lot of people float. Then, you ask, ‘What do you want to feel like once you have what you want?’ A person can earn $400,000 a year and still not feel secure. We set every kind of trap for ourselves.”

Hochschild puts these out-of-the-blue service professions in the broader context of a society right now that “undermines community, disparages government, marginalizes nonprofits, and believes in the superiority of what’s for sale.” As she told The Fiscal Times in an interview, “The wantologist’s profession is fledgling at the moment, but it’s very real – it’s its own speciality. I’ve seen the ‘wantology workbooks.’ I’ve talked to the clients. Services like this are only going to proliferate. A lot of things that seemed weird yesterday aren’t weird today.”

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As in: nameologists (people who help you name your as yet-unborn baby) and gravesite adornment specialists. “Years ago nobody thought of the Sitting Shivah Sisters – a very real business – or services like ‘Rent-a-Grandma’ and ‘Rent-a-Friend,’” says Hochschild. “But there’s a need for these things today. And people are willing to pay.” 

While the well-to-do have always paid for painters, gardeners, chefs, chauffers, dogsitters and the like, Hochschild points out that Americans of all class levels are now paying for private services partly because there’s nowhere else to turn. “The market is the main game in town for meeting these needs,” she says. “Think about it: Poor people out eat too – they just go to different places than the wealthy do. They use babysitters. They use elder care.”

The Fiscal Times (TFT):  How does all of this square with an unemployment rate that’s still over 8 percent? It’s not easy for many people to come up with the cash for services like these – and are they really necessary, by the way?

Arlie Russell Hochschild (ARH):  The point is that we’re reaching with great ease for market services to fill the gaps in many parts of our society. Sure, some of this makes me uneasy. We’re putting distance between ourselves and our private lives, in some ways. But there’s a big-picture scenario here that’s worth a look. Millions of people use the dating service match.com, for example. Just google the words “dating coach,” and you’ll get over a million hits. Look at all the life coaches. It used to be that just the upper class had maids and cooks and wet nurses – but we have the perfect storm in society today for new services.

TFT:  Perfect storm, as in how? 

ARH:  We’re looking at many millions of middle-class two-job families, now that half the work force is made up of women – and most of them are working mothers. There are real needs that aren’t being met in any other way. In America in 2012, few of us have family nearby anymore. We have a high mobility rate. We can’t turn to “ye olde community” the way we used to. We don’t enjoy European style services. So there’s a market zeitgeist and a blossoming service sector that says, “Hey, we’ll answer your needs, and the anxiety laminated over them.”

In terms of the anxiety, here’s one big one: Is my kid going to get a job after college and have a stable life? There’s a whole social class turmoil right now. People are nervous. That gets welded onto real needs. We’re seeing a downsizing of public services and of communities, and rising up to fill that void is the market. And we’re turning to it hopefully, yearningly, in our intimate lives.

TFT:  Isn’t the wantologist just another way to describe a life coach?

ARH:  Life coaching is being sliced and diced now. There’s the “pre-finding a romantic partner” life coach, and then the “getting steady with it” life coach, and then the pre-marriage, and then marriage, and then the “exiting of marriage” life coach. Same thing with jobs – how to get one, how to keep one, how to leave one, and so on. We’ve had services before but not as specialized and as hooked up to technology as we have now. And not as global.

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TFT:  In your research, you also found a man who was looking for a wife, but not a wife – sort of the Pretty Woman idea, but different.

ARH:  A man placed an ad for a woman who would do his laundry, for $30 an hour. He wanted someone to accompany him to social occasions for $60 an hour. And he wanted someone to travel with him, for $300 a day. He had it all priced out. When I showed this to my students at Berkeley, one woman said, “I think the man wants to buy a wife but not be a husband.” Then she said, “I’ve never seen that before, but I’m not surprised.” And that’s my point. We’re not surprised in our culture anymore by this type of thing. But still, I want to hold some wonder about it. I want to examine it.

TFT:  With the aging of our population, won’t there be new jobs yet to come – jobs we can’t even foresee?

ARH:  Very much so. Elder care managers are growing in ranks right now – those who hold the hands of families through the whole process of placing elderly people somewhere and monitoring them, handling the paperwork, the medical issues, the legal issues and so on. That’s a new niche. They’re more highly paid than elder care workers. I expect this to be high growth. Families can’t do it all, in most cases.  A lot of these service providers, by the way, are very emotionally intelligent. Very smart. The more skill and training they have, the better paid they are.

TFT:  One needs to vet these new service providers very carefully, though. But how do you vet a “wantologist” or a “nameologist”?

ARH:  Be careful, certainly! Some of them represent the farthest reaches of this new service frontier we’re on.