Upstairs, downstairs, 2012-style

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There are now more domestic workers in Britain than in Edwardian times. As the TV favourite returns Genevieve Roberts and Nick Butler meet some of them

It seems that, after all, you just can get the staff. The age of service has not only returned, but is thriving. Where once butlers brought the morning mail on a silver salver and a starched Mrs Bridges prepared whole roast hog, now the butler wears Versace while cook checks recipes on her iPad.

The number of domestic workers is now higher than in Edwardian times. Even as Upstairs Downstairs (pictured above) returns to TV next Sunday, reminding us how it used to be, an estimated two million domestic workers will be attending to the needs of their employers. The number of domestic workers exceeds the 1.8 million in domestic service in the early 1900s. But now the relationship between employees and bosses is vastly different.

Dr Wilson Wong, a senior researcher at the Work Foundation, said it was hard to pin down precisely how many people work in domestic service because many have informal cash-in-hand arrangements. He added: "We have shifted from full-time servants to an informal economy, where people often come in for a day, which avoids a master-servant relationship. While 100 years ago servants and their employers were divided by the stairs, now there is a gulf between domestic workers who are officially employed and those who work off the books. There has been a growth in the number of jobs where there is low security, low pay and little opportunity for upward mobility."

Samuel Martin, director of the recently launched head-hunting and staff sourcing business Quintessentially People, said: "Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have drawn attention back to household staff, but the industry has changed. PAs can also act as security for their employer, chauffeurs as household managers – positions can merge into one – and salaries can often be higher than a lawyer's. We recently placed a PA in a £150,000-a-year position. Candidates are very well educated and have extraordinarily varied skills. Household staff are well-respected and not treated like lowly members of the house."

Liz Hunt, the principal of Norland College, agreed. "Becoming a nanny is now seen as a profession, and a serious career option," she said. "Families are more demanding in terms of qualifications and skills. All Norland nannies are trained to degree level. The majority of our nannies are not considered domestic staff but a valued part of the family."

Professor Philip Booth, the editorial director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: "Domestic work declined during a period of huge technological change that led to labour-saving devices and during an era where those with 'old money' were struggling to make ends meet. The recent increase is probably explained by the increase in incomes. Nevertheless, the tax system penalises what economists would call the division of labour. If I employ a gardener and work extra time myself, I pay for the gardener out of post-tax income and the gardener, of course, has to pay tax on the income too. This is one of the unfortunate side effects of high taxation. It would not be surprising to find that some of this domestic work is harboured within the shadow economy."

More than one in 10 of the UK's 25 million households employ domestic help, according to the Work Foundation, including help with childcare and elderly people. Between 2001 and 2007, childcare was the fastest growing job for women in the UK, and one-third of households with two working adults employ domestic help.

Yet the majority are done in ad hoc arrangements: the Office of National Statistics reports there are 52,000 working employees of households, and those who work full-time have gross weekly median earnings of £369.80. This does not include those who are self-employed, such as personal trainers and dog walkers, nor those informally employed.

Those earning over £70,000 are 16 times more likely to employ someone than those earning less than £25,000. Conversely, households earning less than £25,000 are seven times as likely to say they enjoy housework than those earning more than £70,000.

It is a world apart from the late 19th century, when the average school-leaving age for girls was 10. The head of a large household would rule, as described by Mrs Beeton in her cookbooks, in a manner compared with "the Commander of an army, or the leader of an enterprise".

The First World War accelerated a trend for women working outside homes, with two million taking on roles traditionally defined as "male", such as working in munitions factories. In 1963, 28 per cent of household spending was on domestic services, rising to 48 per cent in 1998, according to the ONS. That represents an increase over 10 years from £1.1bn to £4.3bn. That figure is expected to keep on rising in the new age of domestic service.

In service...

Jayne Nisbet, 23

Personal trainer, Loughborough

"I have been a personal trainer for two years, combining work with my own training as an elite high jumper. My clients are aged between 19 and 63, come from different backgrounds and have vastly different fitness levels. The main attraction is convenience: it is easier than working out on your own. One client I trained gradually dropped from size 16 to size 10. It is so rewarding to be responsible for such a success story. The money is good, though it is annoying when people cancel. But it is so much better than working in an office. I love my job."

Sarbdeep Swan, 37

Personal assistant, London

"My clients have included Madonna, Philip Gould and Ronald Cohen. I used to work in politics but fancied a change. I usually arrive at 8am, and do anything from shopping to reframing a piece of art to going running with my employer. A client once ordered me to buy 80 pints of full-fat milk for her to bathe in because she thought it would regenerate her skin – she found it too cold in the end. You have to remember that you are there to do a job. You can be friendly but not overly so. There is huge responsibility and you have to be very discreet."

Ian Alexander, 39

Freelance bodyguard, London

"I was in the military, then royal security at Eton College before going freelance. Size and muscle remain important, but so is intellect. You have to look good in a suit and do a lot of crossover work: I do PA work, am a highly qualified medic and civilian driver, and hold a firearms licence. I am also a confidant and an emotional punchbag. Immediate and mutual trust is essential. You have to smile outwardly, even if inside you are seething. You cannot become over-friendly with employers. The pay varies and the hours are long, but I love what I do."

Chrissie Olinsky

Private caterer, Buckinghamshire

"I am hired by mega-wealthy people all over the world. I plan the menu, shop, cook, serve and wash up. Many people today lack the skills, and don't know when to fade into the background, hearing nothing of what is going on. You need diligence, discretion and the skin of the rhino. Forget TV chefs – we really know what we are doing. Domestic service is tough: I knew one employer who went through 27 nannies in three months. I am always welcomed by permanent staff, but only very special employers genuinely interact with a worker. It can be rewarding."

Bruce Casalis, 27

Dog walker, South London

"We collect the dogs in the morning, and deliver them back in the evening, Monday to Friday. We have private fields, swimming pools, an agility course, heated indoor areas and big comfy dog beds, so we try to bring country life to a London dog. People treat dogs better than their children sometimes: we have one who wears an Oxford University hoodie and a Ralph Lauren jumper. Overall, it is a dream job, but like anything, it has downsides, such as when I was walking a dog on Christmas Eve and it fell through ice into a lake. I had to wade in and get him out."

Aris Chrisanthakopoulos, 39

Butler, London, currently based in Switzerland

"I worked in a military academy and in Parliament before attending butler school. I haven't looked back. My employers vary: some are born rich; some are self-made; some are royals. I am currently working for a Swiss VIP. It is important you get on well with employers, but I avoid becoming too attached. I still do traditional tasks such as serving meals but also bigger dinners. When clients are away I become the house manager and do a lot of PA work. I live with my employers, and usually work 18-hour days starting at 5am. It can be fun, but also difficult, and it does limit your social life."

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