Stop winging it and start treating your home life with the seriousness you bring to your day job. I’m paraphrasing, but this is more or less the thesis of Emily Oster’s latest book. Oster is an increasingly famous—and increasingly controversial—economics professor who’s launched an impressive second career as a data-driven parenting guru.
I love Oster’s work and recommend her newsletter Parent Data to all the new and expectant parents in my life. Not sure about the best way to introduce solids? Curious about the effects of low-dose aspirin in pregnancy? Oster will save you hours of frantic googling and obviate the need to peruse sketchy websites and toxic message boards. Whatever your parenting question, chances are good Oster’s read all 20 academic papers on the topic and separated the wheat from the chaff.
Sometimes, though, Oster reads like a caricature of an economist. Like in this passage from the introduction to her 2021 book, The Family Firm, about parenting school-age children:
It dawned on me that the lessons I tried to impart to [my business school students] about running their business had value in how I ran my house. This idea crystallized for me when [my husband] Jesse and I scheduled a meeting (using Google Calendar) with 8-year-old Penelope to discuss the school-year schedule. We presented an agenda and draft schedule in advance....I would argue that, in fact, many of the tools and processes you most need to manage this period of life are exactly the ones that many businesses use to function well.
Oster is self-aware enough to lean into the absurdity of this scenario—at least from the non-economist perspective. But she’s also dead serious. Yes, she acknowledges, implementing her preferred approach will be time- and energy-intensive.
But she insists it’s worth it to invest time up-front to set policies (e.g., each child does one activity per season and it can’t interfere with dinner), hold family meetings, follow a clear decision-making framework, and so on.
Oster’s primary focus is on helping parents making better decisions. But she argues that a lovely side effect of all these new processes will be increased ease of collaboration between partners. When all of the relevant information about summer camp or a child’s health issues lives in one parent’s head, it’s difficult to share responsibility. When partners haven’t discussed their policy on dessert, it’s harder for one parent to make an independent decision when a child begins begging for cookies.
This argument resonates with the task handoff idea I wrote about recently. Winging it is indeed a bad way to achieve equality—or whatever else you and your partner are collectively aiming for. When you avoid direct conversations about who is responsible for what, or about your shared standards, you will repeatedly find yourself in a game of chicken. And the person who cracks first—makes the call, books the flight, fills out the paperwork—is, at least in most hetero couples, more often female.
And yet, Oster’s preferred methods can seem rather clinical. A project status meeting may be tolerable in the office, but it’s significantly less appealing for a leisurely Saturday at home. It’s hard enough to keep romance alive with small children underfoot and a mortgage to pay (or so I hear). A family Trello board may be a bridge too far. Somewhere, Esther Perel is shaking her head.
The idea of the home as a haven from the ruthless market dates back at least two centuries, when the Industrial Revolution upended work as many people knew it. Increasing numbers of Americans were now going out into the wider world to exchange their labor for money, rather than producing their own goods for consumption. (Of course, this was more of a change for middle-class and white people. The fact that it had to impact those groups before people freaked out is, sadly, not surprising.)
It's around this time that we start seeing the idea that home and market are two “separate spheres.” Whereas the market operated according to economic logic, the home operated—or should—according to moral logic. It was built on love and care rather than cold calculation.
Fair enough. Except that this bifurcation had a lot of unforeseen consequences. For one, “domestic” was increasingly coded as feminine and “market” as masculine. In an increasingly capitalist society, that poses a problem. Quickly the two spheres came to have very different associations with power, status, and other socially valued resources. Further, what happened at home wasn’t typically coded as “productive.”
I see echoes of this separate spheres ideology in some of the critiques of Oster’s work. In our attempts to hold family life apart from whatever it is we do in the office—a task that seems more urgent than ever now that the “office” is the spare bedroom—are we upholding outdated ideas about what constitutes “real” work and what is worthy of our best effort? If efficiency and productivity are the currency of the day, why not try to pursue them at home?
Here's the rub, though. Paid work is, often, kind of awful. Plenty of businesses do terrible things.Is unquestioning adoption of business best practices really the path to domestic bliss?1
Here’s how I square this circle: we need to rethink our focus on “efficiency.” One of Oster’s arguments is that firms, unlike many families, think strategically about how to minimize the resources expended in service of their objectives. They design systems to ensure that efforts are not duplicated; they take the time to create formal policies, if they believe doing so will save time or money in the long run.
The pursuit of efficiency seems straightforwardly good, and Oster doesn’t spend much time defending it as a worthy aim. Who would be monstrous enough to espouse inefficiency?
She’s probably correct to assume most of her readers will see efficiency as a good thing. Though few of my respondents held regular status meetings or built out extensive folders of Google Docs, most of them told me they routinely allocated household labor with efficiency in mind. Why should two people go to the grocery store if one person could do the job fine on his own? Whoever’s office is located closer to the daycare should do the pick-ups and drop-offs—saves on time and gas! Etc.
That’s all well and good. But sometimes the efficient choice is not the same as the fair choice, or the egalitarian choice, or the happiness-promoting choice. Sometimes it’s just nice to cook dinner with your partner, even if the total person-hours might be lower were one person to cook alone. Sometimes it’s worth doing a task your partner could do twice as fast, because they’re overwhelmed with other responsibilities.
Many of us know this instinctively. But in case you needed cold hard proof, there’s a new paper out by sociologist Daniel Carlson. Imagine two couples with a 50/50 household labor allocation. The Smiths divide and conquer: John does the laundry and cleaning, Laura does the cooking and shopping. Meanwhile, their neighbors the Jones each do a little bit of everything. Mark cooks several nights a week, and Paul cooks the rest of the time. They clean up the kitchen together at the end of the night and take turns folding laundry.
According to Carlson, Mark and Paul Jones are likely to be more satisfied with their relationship than John and Laura Smith. We are happier when we share tasks rather than divvy them up.
But we are probably less efficient. The benefits of specialization are often quite clear from an economic perspective. Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize in part for his work showing that a couple could maximize their “household production function” via a breadwinner/homemaker division.
Oster is decidedly not advocating for that. Still, the advice to run your family more like a firm could easily lead couples in that direction.
The bottom line for me is this: We do need clear systems, processes, and priorities that help us organize family life and avoid falling back on social stereotypes about who should do what.
But these systems need not be cribbed directly from the office. Hopefully, our goals as a couple or family—and the lengths we’ll go to reach them—are a lot different than our goals as employees. Our processes should be, too.
A behind-the-scenes note, for those who find such things interesting: This post began innocently enough. A week or so ago, my twitter feed was abuzz about Carlson’s new paper (plus related news coverage). I intended to write a newsletter about his findings. Then I began typing.
Some people do their best thinking in the shower, or while walking, or in conversation with others. I need to write to figure out what I think. And when I sat down to compose this post, I learned that I had many thoughts, only a few of which pertained directly to the new paper.
In the interest of your time, I’ve only scratched the surface here. I didn’t even get to tell you about the New Home Economists and the O.G. home economists! If you’re interested in more, I may do a follow-up post. Or, if you are an editor who wants to commission a piece and give me an excuse to continue nerding out, you know where to find me ;)
This seems parallel to other cases where we used to tell women to act more like men—Lean in! Negotiate harder! Prioritize outcomes over relationships!—but increasingly recognize why that advice is problematic.