Trade Like a Porter | The Spectator

I love complaining about my phone. It has ruined everything from friendships to childhood to my memory. But if I stop complaining and think clearly for a moment, I have to admit that my phone is a much more liberating piece of equipment than either the washing machine or the pill.

In large part because my phone allows me to work from anywhere. For many women, especially those with children, this is a dramatic and radical change. Claire Roscoe’s story is a case in point. She and her husband lost their jobs in the City as a result of the pandemic. Pregnant with their second child, Claire had to find work quickly.

One woman describes working from home as ‘doing Matisse,’ considering she can theoretically run her art business from the comfort of her bed

A little over a year ago, Claire founded Tuesday’s Child, a company that sells embroidered children’s sweaters on the e-commerce platform Etsy. The sweaters are knitted in the UK and Claire embroiders them herself. She oversees every aspect of the business from home. “I pretty much run my business by phone,” she says. “I reply to customer messages at midnight because I can.” When I text Claire late at night, she replies immediately.

Last year, sellers on Etsy (known for its handmade and vintage items) traded $11.6 billion in goods. In the UK, 95 percent of Etsy businesses are home-based, 77 percent of sellers are women, and 25 percent live in rural areas. Half of sellers have dependents, and a third have children under the age of 18.

Etsy is just one platform, but there are many others, such as Shopify, eBay and Vinted. They combine technology, scale and global reach to create a huge marketplace ecosystem, a cottage industry complex. Claire now sells thousands of sweaters, mostly to other British women. “I earn almost as much as I did in my old job, which I never thought I’d be able to do in a year,” she says.

The cottage industry was once ridiculed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, working from home was common on so-called “mercantile farms.” Employers, employees, and apprentices often lived together, running small businesses. The Industrial Revolution moved workers into factories. Women’s liberation in the 20th century brought more opportunities to escape the constraints of domestic life. What could be more appealing to a modern career woman than the opportunity to earn money like a man, with the freedom that comes with it?

But the reality is that having it all isn’t easy – or, for that matter, cheap – as even the most ruthless careerist has probably discovered. Childcare costs in the UK are among the highest in the world. Many women, at some point, make a choice between career and family. The “motherhood gap” describes the difference in employment rates between women with and without children.

But something new seems to be happening, namely a new approach to work. Women are shunning traditional office jobs (or going part-time) and instead investing time and money in their own businesses, run from home, because technology allows them to do so. Skills and hobbies are being used for something more profitable. Collaboration between people is happening from different locations, eliminating much of the need for office roles.

The number of female entrepreneurs running UK e-commerce businesses has risen by 28 per cent in the past five years, and is growing faster here than anywhere else in Europe. Forty-six per cent of e-commerce businesses are run by women aged 26-40, the age of childbearing. One woman I met called it “doing Matisse”, given that she could theoretically run her art business from her bed.

Take a look at Instagram—basically the storefront of many small businesses—and you’ll see all kinds of products being sold, mostly by women to other women. The range is staggering: beauty, housewares, health and fitness, kitchen gadgets, cleaning supplies, party supplies, pet food, baby clothes. Whatever you say, a “homefluencer,” “cleanfluencer,” or “mumfluencer” is probably trying to convince you to make a purchase or “stock up on your pantry.” It’s like a retro Tupperware party.

The most retro is the “tradwife,” who promotes a life of idyllic living to her followers. Tradwife is, in many ways, a deeply cynical creation. There’s nothing traditional about constantly filming family life and preserving it for an online audience. But the audience makes it all worth it. Companies hope to sell products to these followers; tradwife often seems all too eager to comply.

“Everything’s changed now, Larry.”

But who can blame crafty women for romanticising domesticity and ruthlessly cashing in on it, especially when there’s so much money to be made? As Hannah Ryan, senior campaign director at The Goat Agency, which specialises in influencer marketing, explains, ‘sponsored content’ can be a lucrative source of income: “Influencers are paid based on their performance and level of engagement. A typical parenting influencer can earn between £2,000 and £5,000 per post. Brands spend big on influencers, but compared to other forms of marketing, a brand gets much better value (from an influencer) than spending, say, £1m on a TV advert where they don’t get such a targeted message. If an influencer can work with enough brands, it can often allow them to quit their previous job.”

That’s exactly what Laura Mountford has done. She runs the account @lauracleanaholic. Three years ago, she was a senior manager at Marks & Spencer, where she worked as a cashier as a teenager. Today, she mainly posts videos of herself cleaning her house. Brands want her to recommend their products to her almost 800,000 followers, and while she won’t say exactly how much she earns per post, she suggests that some influencers can charge five or even six figures. She says brands really do pay for trust: “I always think, ‘Would I recommend this to my mum?’ If I didn’t, why would I recommend it on my page?

Who can blame cunning women for romanticizing domestic life and ruthlessly profiting from it?

Two famous millennials who have begun to present themselves as domestic goddesses are Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Carrie Johnson, wife of Boris Johnson. Meghan plans to sell jams, cutlery, bedding and cookbooks through her company American Riviera Orchard. Carrie’s Instagram page after number 10 features photos of beach holidays, children, duck and cake, as well as the occasional snap of her husband. With 94,000 followers, Ms Johnson may be considering whether she too could start to use her influence.

If anything, younger generations are even more astute. Last year, the BBC ran a report on why Generation Z is “so fixated on salary,” largely because of the economic turbulence that has been the backdrop for much of their lives. With the average salary of a 30-year-old woman in London being around £33,600, which isn’t a lot, especially when you factor in rent, a mortgage, and even a family, it’s no wonder so many people are hearing the siren call of a side hustle.

This tech-savvy generation, which has never known life without smartphones, may be best positioned to use their phones to break free from the chronically low wages and stagnation of many traditional jobs. Why not sell lip gloss or pots on the side via TikTok or YouTube when influencer fees make average salaries look like pocket change?

“Tell me more about your life as a member of the proletariat.”

Even before entering the workforce, teens and pre-teens are used to selling stuff directly from bedroom to bedroom, combining a strange mix of entrepreneurial spirit, adolescent narcissism, and rampant materialism. It helps to seem relentlessly positive and hopeful—and, of course, encourage anyone watching to “like and subscribe.” Gen Z also seems to be smart about money: Budgeting—that peculiar habit of housewives—has been rebranded as “budgeting out loud.” On TikTok, “finfluencers” encourage followers to be honest about their financial situation and not worry about the taboos of discussing salaries.

The biggest winners of this new, rampant commercial spirit are, of course, big tech companies. They encourage us to see every detail of our lives as something worth selling, while they rake in the profits. I spoke with one mother who told me that while she understands why so many women at her children’s school are being encouraged to sell products to their audiences, she is “less pleased” with another mother whose side hustle is a sexually explicit OnlyFans account. “It seems like a step too far,” she says. Dads may disagree.

Influencer Fees
average salaries
they look like pocket money

Despite the pitfalls, smartphones provide a form of freedom that previous generations could not have imagined. “All this technology is pointless if its effects are not visible from the air,” says Rory Sutherland, SpectatorWiki Man columnist. “Railways, canals, cars were important, and you can see their impact from the air in terms of where people live and how they do things. The whole point of digital design is to make your location irrelevant, to make your location less of a determinant of what you do.” Gone are the days when the only way to access technology was through the office. “A lot of people now have better technology at home than at work,” Rory adds.

That means we’re all glued to our phones wherever we are. One columnist in Daily Telegraph recently argued that there is nothing worse than seeing a mother with a smartphone surrounded by children. I tend to agree, but I also know that I would not be able to balance work with the needs of my two children without being somehow connected by an umbilical cord to my phone. For better or worse, phones have allowed us to sell our souls online. As a result, home is where the deception is.