An au pair is a domestic assistant from a foreign country working for, and living as part of, a host family. Typically, au pairs take on a share of the family’s responsibility for childcare as well as some housework, and receive a monetary allowance for personal use. Au pair arrangements are subject to government restrictions which specify an age range usually from mid-late teens to mid to late twenties; some countries explicitly limit the arrangement to females.
Arrangements differ between Europe, where the concept originated, and North America. In Europe, au pairs are only supposed to work part-time, and they often also study part-time, generally focusing on the language of the host country. In the United States, they may provide full-time childcare. In 1969, the European Agreement on Au Pair Placement was signed, and it came into force in 1971.
Unlike many other types of domestic assistants, the au pair is considered a part of the host family and not merely an employee. In some countries the au pair wears a uniform, but more commonly the au pair only follows the host family’s dress code and wears attire appropriate for the work description, typically including a protective apron.
The concept of the au pair originated in Europe after World War II. Before the war, an abundant supply of domestic servants had been available to look after the children of middle and upper-class families, but changes in social attitudes, and increases in wages and taxes after the war, made the old system inaccessible to most middle class parents. At the same time, social change increased the number of middle class girls who needed to earn their own living, and rising educational aspirations for girls made experiencing foreign cultures and learning foreign languages more common aspirations.
However, due to the stigma attached to being a “servant”, an essentially working-class status that even working-class people were repudiating, this potential supply for domestic labour could only be utilised if a new non-servant role was created. Thus the au pair was born. The au pair was supposed to be treated as a member of the family rather than a servant, and was not required to wear a uniform.