Imagine yourself (or more realistically your descendants) in the year 2121. Presumably by that juncture the engineers will have figured out the self-driving car thing. Hopefully the Earth as we know it will still exist. Assuming it does, what will housework look like?
I’ve been playing with this thought experiment recently, after two people asked me a version of this question: what’s the endgame for the movement for household equality? What exactly would it look like to “solve” the gendered distribution of household labor?
While sociologists are better trained to study what is rather than prescribe what ought to be, I’ve nevertheless had fun gaming out possible futures. The 5 scenarios below are far from exhaustive, but I think they represent some of the major “flavors” of possibility.
Scenarios A-C focus on individual-level change, with the outcome that all or most couplesshare household labor equitably. Scenario D focuses on population-level change, with the outcome that the distribution of household labor across couples would be equitable. Finally, Scenario E argues for radical change, wherein we rethink fundamental assumptions about how care work is organized.
Scenario A: 50/50 Task Split
The couple splits or shares every task or task category. This might mean they take turns cleaning the bathroom, that they clean side by side, or that one person cleans the bathroom while the other cleans the kitchen. (The options would be similar for cognitive tasks.)
Scenario B: 50/50 Category Split
Each partner takes responsibility for a distinct subset of household labor, but the partners’ workloads are roughly equivalent. One partner might do nearly all the cooking (physical and cognitive work) while the other does all the cleaning and shopping. Both partners would agree that their “portfolio” of responsibilities are roughly equivalent on some key metric(s): time, effort, etc.
Scenario C: 50/50 Lifetime Split
Couples pursue equality over the life course rather than at any given moment. That is, they take turns stepping up and stepping back, either at predetermined intervals or in conjunction with ebbs and flows in their non-familial responsibilities.
One way to “solve” the gendered household labor problem would be to have every couple pursuing one of the above scenarios. But, one might (quite reasonably) argue that equality as defined here would not work for every couple. Perhaps one partner has a chronic condition or disability that makes household labor difficult. Perhaps one partner feels called to care for the home, while the other feels called to some time-intensive professional endeavor.Perhaps there are more than two adults in the household. And so on.
Scenario D thus moves the focus away from individual couples and toward the population of households.
Scenario D: Equality on average
Do you remember the idea of a “distribution” from high school math? For instance, you can plot individual students’ test scores on a graph, and then summarize those scores to make statements about the class’s performance. E.g., the average student got a B+ but the range was D- to A+.
We could use a similar process to map out families’ labor practices. Right now the average household is female-led, in the sense that there are many more homes where a female partner does more of the household work than there are homes where a male partner does more of the household work.
In our 2121 world, we might hope for the average household to be equal. That could mean that every household is pursuing Scenario A, B, or C. But it could also mean that roughly equal numbers of households are male-led and female-led. If you took a sample of 10 couples, perhaps 4 would split household work 50/50, 3 would put more on a female partner’s plate, and 3 would put more on a male partner’s plate.
This scenario would allow couples to make choices. But without a gendered default to fall back on, they would have to make those decisions very intentionally. Some would choose to have one partner specialize in paid work and the other in unpaid care, but the gender composition of the people doing the caring would be a lot more diverse than it is now.
I mentioned Scenario D to a recent interlocutor, and he asked a reasonable follow-up: who would enforce that imaginary distribution? Would this require a “social engineer” assigning couples to a particular division of labor? This seems like a bad idea, for a whole host of reasons. But I take his point. The underlying question seems to be, what would have to change at the societal level in order for more couples to choose to share care work or pursue a male-led division of labor? What forces would get us from our current distribution to that imagined one?
In short, many things would have to change. But here’s one big one: care work would need to be valued more. In our current world, paid work is the primary arena in which we acquire status, wealth, and power. We would need more widespread recognition that care work is critical, challenging, and valuable work in its own right before I’d expect to see a marked shift in our hypothetical distribution.
Scenario E: A Radical rethinking
Perhaps neither the individual- nor population- level solutions is sufficient, and what we really need is a paradigm shift. For example, what if we moved away from the idea of the nuclear family or the romantic relationship as the unit within which household labor should be divided and care should be shared? What if we moved toward more communally-oriented arrangements (as a great many thinkers and activists have already argued, and as is more common in less individualistic societies)?
These alternative arrangements could be more or less radical, depending on one’s inclinations. Perhaps a few families or individuals living on the same block retain their separate houses but pool their resources to share childcare, shopping, or cooking. Perhaps that same group starts a literal commune in which everyone lives together and both work and resources are shared. Perhaps whole communities band together in support, as we saw happen with the growing number of mutual aid groups emerging in the early days of the pandemic.
Communal living would not automatically generate equality. (Just ask the 22-year-old living in a group house and trying unsuccessfully to get his roommate to stop leaving dishes in the sink.) Undoubtedly, it would create some new challenges. But I suspect it could also disrupt traditional paradigms enough to unleash creative problem-solving.
Thanks for bearing with me through this wonkier-than-usual post. I’ll be back in your inbox in a few weeks with another Profile in Housework (i.e., an interview wherein I ask nosy questions about a reader’s division of labor).
As always, write to me or leave a comment! What scenarios would you add to this list? I read all your messages.
Not all households feature couples, of course! Read on to Scenario E for some preliminary thoughts about what household labor might look like when we think beyond romantic relationships.
I’m always hesitant to invoke preferences in this way, because our preferences are to some extent a function of our social location (e.g., I’m a woman, so I’m expected to prefer childcare, therefore I ultimately come to prefer it). But for our purposes here, let’s assume there would be some variation in preferences even in the absence of these social forces.
Brilliant as always, Allison! Thank you so much for sharing, I love your newsletter :) ~Nina