A speculative future of housework – part 1 of a series

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.

household-time-usage

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?

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5 Responses to A speculative future of housework – part 1 of a series

  1. BilB says:

    I didn’t pick up on the household aspect of JQ’s article as this is highly variable. My mother vacuumed the entire house every day. My house gets vacuumed once a month. Cooking and dishwashing are the main time consumers around the house. Cleaning clothes these days is 90% automatic. I recently bought a washer dryer so time spent on cleaning clothes is the time it takes to gather and load, unload and fold. So if a person is very organised, and I do know some extremely organised householders house work can be under 7 hours per week per person including cooking. It comes down to organisation and the standards one sets for oneself.

    You are right for the microwave. I would add to that the robotic vacuum cleaner, breadmakers, food processors, recently Jamie Oliver’s cooking machine, stand alone freezers, ironing presses, knitting machines, electronic sewing machines, robot lawnmower, automatic sprinkler systems, garage door openers, and possibly the new swathe of electronic household management systems.

    I was more interested in the 15 hour income working week to see if that was possible, and I believe it is. Though a 24 hour working week makes more sense. Three eight hour days or two twelve hour days would be very practicle form an industrial view point.

    The key enabler in this is the affordability of accomodation, and I had already done a fair bit of work on this. I began designing a student accommodation village the outcome of which is a stand alone house which I class as “soil to sun” with 110 square metres of living space suitable for 3 sharing occupants and with a price tag of $100,000 . At this level a sharing couple each working 24 hours at the minimum wage of $15.96 per hour will have a household income of $768. From that comes the mortgage cost of $190 per week and the finance payments on a VW XL1 (guessed to be $28,000) of $150 per week. This building has 1.6 kwhr capacity tracking solar panels with integrated water heating (this is an extra above the cost of the building) so the electricity bill is $ 5 per week. The couple both work the same job (48 hour job shared between 2 people) so the commute distance of 80 klm per day costs $6 per week (4 litres of fuel per week as the VW L1 has an economy of 100 klm /ltr). Many people report food at $50 per week so we will say $120 for the couple. There are many cell phone deals at $11.5 per week with adequate call and internet time so $23 per week covers the phone bill and $16 per week will provide internet connectivity. This leaves $258 per week for the couple for maintenance, incidentals and discretionary spending.

    So from that I judged a 15 hour week to be achievable and a 24 hour week very comfortable. The next thought is how would people with 4 or 5 days a week of free time behave.

    How would this formula stack up un some of the world’s income black spots

    Greece minimum wage per hour is around E5 or Aus $296 /24 hr week / couple
    US minimum wage per hour is around $ 7.50 or Aus $343 / 24 hr week /couple
    UK minimum wage per hour is Pound 5.93 or Aus $430 / 24hr week / couple

    We’d really have to work hard on that accommodation figure and drop the car.

    You’ve got to recognise when you are well off.

    • Interesting analysis!

      Yes, organization and discipline, as well as compromising on the “eat off the floor” factor, can reduce housework levels substantially. But I don’t think human nature is likely to change too much, either with regards to levels of organization nor with cleanliness standards.

      As far as accommodation goes, a key driver of this will be how much productivity in the construction industry can be improved – through things like robotic construction and factory-built modular apartments. Transport and planning policies also obviously make a big difference; good policy will reduce the difference in attractiveness between the best and worst suburbs and reduce the cost of living in a “nice” place.

      As for transport, the costs go down a great deal if you assume that XL1-like vehicles are used as driverless taxis rather than privately owned and operated. I’ve seen estimates (from proponents, admittedly) of a factor of four cost reduction compared to private ownership.

      • BilB says:

        Driverless XL1 taxis is a very interesting prospect. I did a little more probing and at this stage the XL1 is estimated to be about A$40,000 , more than my guestimate so I adjust the lease term to 6 years (difficult) or add a refinanceable ballon payment and that increases the payments by $30. Of course there are cheaper vehicles or no vehicle at all and use public transport. That is another ananlysis. I had a look at the square metreage price of land near Melbourne at Sommerfield at $819 per sq M so that take the $100,000 to $120,000 for the designed construction and the payments also up by $30. Still all very workable.

        The neato xv26 robo vac seems to have a good rep. I am going to do the leg work and see if it works convincingly.

        I am interested in the appliances. I am designing a washer dryer for my (still in the design stage) boat. Interesting thing with washer dryers is that they consume water during the drying cycle in a spray condenser, 40ltrs per drying cycle. Not a problem on a boat. But the appliance that requires the most designwork is the recirculating shower. I have built a basic one in the past, but this one has to work properly for a very long time.

  2. Pingback: Speculative future of housework part 2 – floors | A Bent Ghost

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