(How) can social policy and fiscal policy recognise unpaid family work?

Author:Hakim, Catherine

Until recently, unpaid work was effectively ignored by social scientists and policymakers. Invisibility entailed under-valuation of the social and economic contribution of unpaid work done in households. The development of time use surveys across the European Union provides the basis for new statistics on all productive work hours, whether paid or unpaid. This new information base is complemented by the new theoretical framework of preference theory. With a broad perspective that encompasses all types of work done in households or the market economy, preference theory predicts varying patterns of work, and identifies the associated policy issues. It helps us identify policies that recognise and reward unpaid family work, and those that openly ignore it.

The new view from time budget studies

Time budget studies are changing the way we see the world, and destroying some well-entrenched myths in the process. By providing hard information on what we do with every hour and minute of the day, time budget surveys can tell us just how much time we spend eating, sleeping, shopping, travelling to work, at work, doing our hair, socialising and playing around with sporting and leisure activities. They also provide information on unpaid household work, care work, and voluntary work--the three types of productive work that have so far remained invisible, uncounted, and unremunerated. A new programme of time budget studies across the European Union, and in many other countries, is providing entirely new kinds of statistics to answer questions that could not previously be addressed--and hence became the subject of wild speculation and anecdotal evidence. As factual data replaces received wisdom, several well-entrenched feminist myths have been overturned.

The first round of the EU Harmonised European Time Use Surveys was carried out in 2000 in over twenty countries. Results from the British 2000 survey are accessible on the National Statistics website (www.statistics.gov.uk/timeuse) and a few reports have already been published. However Jonathan Gershuny at Oxford University has spent decades collecting the largest archive of time use data for all countries of the world, and his reports remain the principal source of information on trends and patterns of time use across the globe (Gershuny, 1983a; 1983b; 1988; 1992; 1993; 2000).

Who works hardest? Feminists have long complained about women's 'double shift'--a term invented in the United States, and automatically assumed to apply equally in Western Europe, despite our shorter work hours and widespread availability of part-time jobs. Indeed, the European Commission actively promotes the idea that women carry an unfair burden, working disproportionately long hours in jobs and at home as well, juggling family and work (1). However time budget studies show that women's double shift is a myth.

On average, women and men across Europe do the same total number of productive work hours, once paid jobs and unpaid household work are added together--roughly eight hours a day. Men do substantially more hours of paid work. Women's time is divided more evenly between paid and unpaid work. Men and women do roughly equal amounts of voluntary work--contrary to the popular myth that women do vastly more than men. Results for Britain are repeated in the USA and other countries, despite differences in the length of working weeks and lifestyles. It is only in the poorer nations that women work longer hours overall. Indeed, in Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, men actually do more productive work than women.

The same pattern of equality in total productive work hours is found among couples aged 20 to 40 and those aged 40 to 60, so is reasonably constant across the lifecycle. In fact, an analysis by Susan Harkness shows that British men work longer hours in total than do women when there are children in the home, largely because men often work more overtime to boost family income at this stage, while wives switch to part-time jobs, or even drop out of employment (Harkness, 2008). Couples with no children at home and where both have full-time jobs emerge as the only group where women work more hours in total than men, once paid and unpaid work hours are added together. Feminists constantly complain that men are not doing their fair share of domestic work. The reality is that most men already do more than their fair share, and this is most pronounced in the 'gender egalitarian' cultures of Scandinavia. These conclusions have long been established by Gershuny's research, and are re-confirmed by the new time budget studies across Europe and North America. The only exceptions are Eastern European countries: under socialist governments, women did more hours in total, as they were forced into full-time jobs, and they continue to work longer hours in a few ex-socialist countries today. Time use surveys resolve one of the difficulties in giving recognition to unpaid family work: they allow us to count it, and thereby bring it into full public view. They tell us who does it, in what types of family, and for how long. Women's unpaid domestic work and care work emerges out of the shadows, and turns out to be more limited than the case study reports claimed it was.

Two studies that have attained almost iconic status are usually quoted to demonstrate women's 'double burden'. In Britain, Anne Oakley's Housewife catalogues the unremitting eighteen-hour workdays of mothers with no jobs but with young children aged under five at home (Oakley, 1976). In the United States, Arlie Hochschild's The Second Shift details the domestic work and childcare done by women after they return home from their full-time day jobs (Hochschild, 1990). The trouble is, these case studies invariably focus on women with babies or very young children at home, a relatively temporary phase within the lifecycle. Such studies cannot be representative of women generally, especially as they exclude all women who have no children at home and no job.

However, feminist views have become so entrenched in this area that even Harkness rails against the injustice of men's limited contribution to domestic work and childcare. She overlooks the fact that when paid and unpaid work hours are aggregated, men almost invariably put in more hours of productive work, as she herself has shown. The reason men are reluctant to offer more help with domestic work is that they are already doing more than their wives, on average--at least in Britain.

Valuing care work and domestic work

Time use surveys are also helping us to assess the economic value of all these hours of household work and care work. Satellite accounts for private households are now a regular addition to National Accounts across the EU. Findings here are more slippery, as they depend so heavily on how unpaid work is valued. When a highly-paid lawyer stays at home to care full-time for a new baby, should their time be valued at the...

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