No More Mary Poppins

A good British nanny used to be hard to find. Mostly high-powered bankers, lawyers and big media types--fat on the '90s equities boom--could afford them. Experienced nannies commanded salaries that rose in lock step with those of their employers--roughly £25,000, or $37,000, in 2002. Then there were the perks: complimentary mobile phones, gym memberships, even free cars and overseas vacations.

Ah, those were the golden years of what Liz Roberts, editor of Nursery World magazine, calls the "nanny bubble." Alas, the halcyon era has gone. Just as the fortunes of dot-com bazillionaires and City financiers have foundered, so, too, for nannies. These days, the talk on the park benches of London's tonier districts is of the child-care glut. Once upon a time, nannies were routinely poached by rival parents, eager to provide the very best for their beloved little ones. Now, many of those same caretakers have been reduced to hawking their services. Ask Carla Shimeld, founder of Simply Childcare, a London-based listings service. Not so long ago, her paper would run seven help-wanted ads for every ad placed by a nanny seeking work. Lately that calculus has flipped. "I never thought I'd see the day," she says, adding that nannies who do find work, these days, are also facing pay cuts. The average live-in nanny wage fell 1.5 percent in 2002, to £268 per week, according to a recent survey done by Nannytax. And raises for a job well done? They're waaay down, too.

For the real McCoys--British nannies, that is--the bad news is compounded by a recent influx of Eastern European au pairs and child caretakers, invariably willing to do more work for far less money. "The Eastern European girls are making it hard for us," says one veteran nanny, Karen Hendry, who takes care of two babies in south London. "You have to be more flexible with hours, and take on household chores in addition to child care. The average day is now 11 or 12 hours," compared with 9 or 10 in the good old days.

Even if London's faltering economy bucks up, the classic "Mary Poppins nanny," whose only job is to care for children, appears to be on her last legs. The trend is clear, Shimeld says: either nannies will become combination babysitters and housekeepers, or they'll go upscale as a sort of maternal personal assistant, juggling not only the kids but also cooking dinner, making household repairs and organizing social calendars. In other words, they'll look a lot like ordinary workaday moms.