Skip to main content
lucy kellaway

Suppose you found out that this column wasn't written by me. Suppose it was written by some random young hack to whom I was paying a pittance to do it for me. Would you care? Would my employer care? The answer to both questions is probably yes. Yet caring makes little sense. The only logical, unsentimental response would be not to care at all.

About two weeks ago, the story broke of a programmer at Verizon who outsourced his job to someone in China so that he could concentrate on watching cat videos instead. Verizon cared so much it did something quite mad: It fired him.

Like this programmer, most of us are employed to do specific tasks. If they are done well, we should be rewarded. If not, we should be reprimanded. We are responsible for our work, whether or not we do it ourselves; either way the incentive to perform is the same. The only risk in outsourcing our jobs at a fraction of our salary is that our employer gets wind of it and decides to cut out the middleman.

Otherwise the arrangement has a lot going for it and has a fine pedigree. Getting someone else to do your work is the basis of capitalism. It is the oil that makes organizations run smoothly. The more senior and the better paid you are, the less you end up doing yourself: It is called delegation. You could say it is different in my case, because there is deception involved. As it is my name on top of this column, you are being led to believe that these are my words. Yet that seems a sentimental concern: Surely it is enough that I vaguely agree with the arguments expressed and that the words are entertaining enough to make you want to read on.

In any case, all sorts of people give their names to the labour of others. Damien Hirst employs about 100 artists in a factory and has boasted that he likes to sit and watch them work. No one expects politicians to write their own speeches. We know many academics get their PhD students to do their research for them. Fashion designers don't generally design their own clothes. Colonel Sanders doesn't make his own fried chicken – though that is partly because he is dead.

There is only one field in which outsourcing is not fine. It is never okay for students to buy essays on the Internet and pass them off as their own. But that is because learning is about the process rather than the outcome: If you mess with the process, it counts as cheating.

By contrast, the Verizon guy wasn't really cheating or doing anything unusual. This sort of outsourcing is increasingly widespread, turns out to be dead easy, dead cheap and doesn't even involve going to China.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled onto TaskRabbit, a U.S. website where you can outsource anything in your personal life you can't be bothered to do – from walking the dog to reading Bulgakov for your book group – as well as most things in your working life. Combing through the lists of tasks that have been recently offloaded on to others, I found a journalist who had paid someone about $50 to rewrite an article in seven different ways so they could sell it to seven different magazines. I am agog at the entrepreneurial spirit.

There is also an active market in outsourcing presentations and PowerPoint decks – which makes sense, given how tiresome they are to write and how little it seems to cost to get someone else to do them for you. Sales pitches and even company strategy are being written for a pittance by TaskRabbits. One manager recently paid a mere $200 to have his company's entire business plan rewritten – and declared himself thrilled with the result.

Not only can you outsource the job, you can even outsource finding it in the first place. One postdoctoral student is paying someone to comb websites for specialized posts and is paying a measly $20 per application letter.

The only things that can't be outsourced are personal appearances. But if all your work is being done by someone else, you have plenty of time to be briefed on everything you are supposed to know and to practise your performances until all are virtuoso.

Though I appreciate the many charms of outsourcing my job, I'm not quite willing to try it. The main problem is that my ego isn't strong enough to deal with someone who is better at being me than I am. And, in any case, I happen to like what I do: The outsourcing model breaks down for the few lucky people on Earth who enjoy working more than they enjoy watching cat videos.