Outsourcing can lead to distance.
If you pay someone to orchestrate the perfect wedding proposal, carry your baby and scatter a loved one's ashes at sea, what's really left of your personal life?
It's a question that has increasingly bothered American sociologist Arlie Hochschild as society finds itself in the grip of an outsourcing craze; we're hiring experts to fulfil the traditional roles of family, friends and ourselves.
''Each little act symbolises a connection to another person,'' says Hochschild, who will speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House next weekend. ''If you hire a coach to help you do the perfect ritual, it displaces the relationship.''
Hochschild's book The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times charts the proliferation of a dizzying array of services that once would have been considered too intimate to engage a stranger to perform.
While paid help is nothing new for the ultra-wealthy, in the space of a generation it has trickled down to the middle class, aided by technology. We've become avid users of cleaners, takeaway restaurants, dog walkers, childcare and online matchmaking.
Now you can hire a consultant to review how well your family functions or find you a gym buddy when you land in a strange city. There are even ''wantologists'' who will help you define what you want in life and how to get it.
''Even if you never pay money for any of these services, we're coming to think of our personal lives in a market-like way,'' Hochschild says. We refer to ourselves as brands, talk about being more efficient by outsourcing, and think that if we're prepared to pay for an online dating service, it indicates we're serious about finding love.
As we outsource acts of service that are meant to show we care, like naming our newborn baby or visiting an elderly relative in a nursing home, Hochschild says we are having to redefine what is truly personal.
''We're drawing lines,'' she says. ''On one side of the boundary is, 'Only I can do it, this is personal, it's too personal for anyone else to do.' On the other side is, 'The market can do it better.'''
Hochschild relates the story of divorcee Grace Weaver, who hired an internet dating coach to help her meet a man. ''E-Cyrano'' wrote Grace's profile, picked her photos and rehearsed scenarios with her. But she drew the line at letting him vet the emails she received.
''When I do find Mr Right, I want to be able to say to him, 'I picked you out','' Hochschild recalls Grace saying. ''She put significance on that.''
The Outsourced Self is a sequel of sorts to Hochschild's groundbreaking book The Second Shift: Working Parents and The Revolution At Home. Published a quarter of a century ago, The Second Shift detailed the realities of life for the new dual-income family; the stalled feminist revolution where women would spend all day pursuing careers and then come home and have to do all the domestic duties.
They tried to be superwomen, and their husbands tried to redefine their breadwinner role to include helping around the house, but it was still two people trying to do the work of three. So these families sought outside help, which their two incomes made affordable.
''Instead of democratising the work at home, instead of cutting back on hours at work and making modern and flexible working hours the norm, in a way we've copped out and got the market to do it,'' Hochschild says. ''You don't have to get home early to pick up the kids because Matilda will do it, he doesn't have to help around the house because Esperanza does it.''
Outsourcing personal tasks saves time, gets the job done and ensures it is done well by someone with expertise. At its best it enables people to focus on what only they can do and not waste time on the other things.
For one woman Hochschild interviewed, it solved the quandary of what to do when her ex-husband became ill. Although she had no desire to become his primary carer again, she was still concerned for his welfare. So she hired a friend to visit her ex-husband - on the condition he never knew his regular visitor was being paid for by his former wife.
But Hochschild argues the trend to outsource the minutiae of our lives signifies a lack of confidence in our own abilities. Another woman she interviewed was torn between buying a readymade model of a Spanish mission church for her child's year 3 project (like all the other mums were doing) or helping him attempt to create his own imperfect model.
''This woman felt ambivalent about it. She said, 'On the one hand, I want to teach my kid ingenuity, daring and daring to fail. On the other hand I want him to get an A.'''
No longer do we want to toil away at a task in an amateur fashion and risk failure, when we can pay a professional to guarantee a result. ''It's the result people are focusing on, not the work that went into it,'' Hochschild says. She believes outsourcing reveals anxiety about attaining perfection, and suggests an absence of faith in friendship, community and public services.
''Getting an expert to help you get a ritual right is sadly an expression of great anxiety,'' Hochschild says. ''As marriage itself becomes more fragile the more people are frightened and anxious they can't do things right, the more they fetishise the ring discovery moment and the wedding.''
While young readers of The Outsourced Self have been horrified by the prospect of outsourcing their personal lives, Hochschild said many older readers felt ''guilt-tripped'' by her book.
''It hit a nerve of ambivalence and fear, 'Don't rock this boat, we need these services,''' she says. ''People are trying to have stable families without much help from government services or community life. Maybe we need to provide more support for family life.''
Arlie Hochschild will speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House, which runs from November 2-4.