John Quiggin’s excellent essay The 15-Hour Week argues (to simplify what was already a somewhat hand-waving argument) that foreseeable economic growth and policy decisions distributing that growth evenly enough, the entire world’s population would need to work only 15 hours per week to enjoy a comfortable standard of living in perhaps 2060 or so. John Maynard Keynes’ economic Utopia,in Quiggin’s view, can be achieved. It’s an appealing vision – a heck of a lot more appealing than the endless exhortations from Labor Prime Ministers about the joys of hard work. So it’s worth spending a bit of time considering whether it’s feasible.
Quiggin has noted Keynes’s blind spot on the topic of housework – Keynes was very much a man of his class and time in this. Modern surveys, such as this one indicate that the average adult spends roughly 15 hours per week on housework, a figure that is declining only slowly. John claims (a claim I have some reservations about) that there has been little development of time-saving household technology since the 1950s:
The household appliances that first came into widespread use in the ’50s (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and so on) eliminated a huge amount of housework, much of it pure drudgery. By contrast, technological progress for the next 40 years or so was limited. Arguably, the only significant innovation in this period was the microwave oven.
Many of these technologies may have originally appeared in the homes of upper-middle-class Americans in the 1950s, but some remain far from universal – less than half of Victorian households had a dishwasher in 2008, for instance. So there is still considerable scope for existing labour-saving devices to become truly universal; it’s also worth noting the power of incremental improvements in these existing products to save time. The dishwashers of 2013 are not only much more frugal in their use of energy and water, they can clean a much broader range of cookware and cutlery effectively, with less pre-preparation required.
All that said, though, incremental improvements in existing household technology isn’t going to get us the radical reduction in time devoted to housework; nor, clearly, will simple outsourcing using existing processes get us there. Cultural changes, such as a move to smaller houses, more communal living arrangements, or preferences for housing and clothing designs that are easier to clean, could potentially make a substantial difference. But – and perhaps it’s my technologist bent coming to the fore – technological improvements seem likely to make the most difference over time.
So, I thought I’d have a poke around and see what potentially labour-saving household technologies might plausibly contribute to a substantial reduction in housework.
But, first, let’s look at a breakdown of housework, as self-reported and measured (by periodically stopping them during the day and asking) among middle-class married American householders from 2000 (from Lee and Waite, Husbands’ and Wives’ Time Spent on Housework: A Comparison of Measures, Journal of Marriage and Family 67 (May 2005): 328–336) I’m not really interested here in the gender differences (embarrassing as they remain to men), but to get a sense of the quantum of time spent on different activities.
So, that’s where we are – or at least, where some middle-class married Americans were 12 years ago. How might we get those numbers down?