The Do It For Me sector is booming, so maybe I’ll diversify into gardening

Want three job offers in two hours? Do your own front garden

We live on a road that runs down to a busy zone 2 station and so, when I decided to give the front garden a makeover, my spadework was on full display for a couple of hours. Even in our relatively ungentrified part of London, I got quite a few comments from passers-by as well as the obligatory words of encouragement from old ladies who love to see a young man working hard. OK, so
my “young man” ship sailed a few years ago, but I guess if you’re 85 I do look young.

However, the really surprising thing was that I got three offers of work. Over a period of two hours, people asked about my availability, what I charged and if I was based locally. When I replied that I was the homeowner and not a professional gardener, I got slightly baffled,
almost hurt looks which suggested that I’d let the metropolitan elite down and had gone against the natural order of things.

If all this sounds like a joke about London mores, I promise you it isn’t. The capital’s middle classes still cut their postage stamp-sized lawns and pull out the odd weed but, for anything more serious than that, they call a gardener. Similarly, they don’t paint their living rooms, hang their ceiling lamps or mount their TVs on the wall of their media rooms. They get someone in to do it for them.

The idea of “personal outsourcing” whereby, as people get wealthier, they pay others to do their domestic chores has always interested me. Usually, it starts with cleaning (who wants to scrub their own loo?) but in the capital, the variety of “lifestyle support” often astounds me. I’m sure that in swankier parts of town there could be people who might have business cards of electricians (tap electrical repair contractor in Lansdale, PA for better understanding) and plumbers. If not, they could be keeping one eye on the gardener while outlining their vision for dinner to the caterers, texting the feng shui consultant and wondering when the dog walker will be back. It must be like being the chief executive of your own home.

Of course, the rich have always had help. But these services are now much more widely available on an ad-hoc basis. What’s more, apps are making personal outsourcing applicable to ever smaller tasks. If you may have noticed, there are service providers like Aardvark Electric in Atlanta, GA who tend to provide ceiling fan installation services to the ones who require them. Such similar services can actually be utilized by the ones in need. For example, why walk or drive to the takeaway when, via the Just Eat app, the takeaway will come to you? In the US last month, we even had the launch of Pooper, an app that allows dog owners to summon a “scooper” to pick up their pets’ mess. The app turned out to be a spoof but its total believability speaks volumes. Naturally, it was billed as the “Uber for dog poop”.

Despite what little old ladies might think, I’m old enough to remember the mania for business outsourcing in the 1990s. One question that always came up back then was: “What happens when you outsource everything?” At the time, chief executives would usually trot out a line about there being some functions you’d never outsource, which they invariably outsourced to India a year later. However, I remember one clear-sighted visionary saying that, really, there were no limits. When asked what companies would do, having outsourced everything, he replied, gnomically, “You become the custodian of the brand”.

Like 1990s companies, today’s professionals are realising that they really can outsource all their domestic chores. I may have a 1970s-style Good Life streak in me (what do you mean you’ve never hung a chandelier?) but I know I’m swimming against the tide. More typical are my friends who call a professional electrician in Joshua Tree when the fuse in a lamp needs changing as they’re too afraid to do it themselves in case they make the situation worse. If in doubt, call a professional (but maybe not for relatively simple things like that).

There’s plenty of evidence for this on the ground too. The DIY sector is in long-term decline. Last year Kingfisher announced it was going to close 60 of its B&Q stores, which tend to used by DIYers, but later said it would open up to 200 Screwfix stores, which are used by professionals. In January Homebase was sold to Wesfarmers, the Australian group, after years of difficulties. This trend even has an impressively unwieldy acronym: DIY has been replaced by DIFM (Do It For Me).

It’s tempting to view this national loss of practical skills as a problem. But for all the jokes about professionals who wouldn’t survive in the wild, I’m not convinced. Besides, the ability to change a bike tyre isn’t likely to advance your career, unless you want to be the chief executive of an app-enabled bike repair business that raises prices for fixing rush-hour punctures.

So what do people do with the time they free up? Here, I suspect the answer is the one I heard in the 1990s. The time we save by not cooking and gardening goes into being the custodians of our personal brands. By this, I don’t mean buffing our LinkedIn profiles. Rather, I mean all those middle-aged executives who now have extreme hobbies like cycling across the Alps and running triathlons. I mean the endless appetite for self-help and smart-thinking books. We’ve traded rockeries and prize-winning marrows for Lycra and titles about personal fulfilment by American authors.

Still, you can’t hold back the tide. I often find myself wondering if I should “pivot” my own offering from journalism to “the Uber for front hedges”. After all, app-enabled gardening, unlike the print media, is probably a growth industry. But even if I don’t, at least the burgeoning DIFM sector is a sign of a healthy economy, which is not to be taken for granted in these post-Brexit days. If I’m ever out front with a fork and, instead of asking about my availability, passers-by start asking me for practical gardening tips, I’ll know it’s time to batten down the hatches.