NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Hours Spent in Homemaking Have Changed Little This Century


Women between the ages of 18 and 64 spent 18 fewer hours on housework each week in 2005 than they did in 1900. However, men aged 18-to-64 took up much of the slack, spending about 13 more hours on housework in 2005 than in 1900.

In Time Spent in Home Production in the 20th Century: New Estimates from Old Data (NBER Working Paper No. 13985), Valerie Ramey investigates how much time is spent on "homemaking," which includes food preparation, house cleaning, care of family members (and non-household members, such as elderly parents), shopping, and managing the household. She develops new estimates of time in home production for 1900-65, based on thousands of time diaries. When these estimates are combined with government data and other nationally representative estimates for the years since 1965, they suggest that women between the ages of 18 and 64 spent 18 fewer hours on housework each week in 2005 than they did in 1900. However, men aged 18-to-64 took up much of the slack, spending about 13 more hours on housework in 2005 than in 1900. Ramey concludes that from 1900 to 1965, time spent by (non-employed) housewives in homemaking fell by about six hours per week, and "all of that change could be accounted for by the number and age of children and the increased education levels of housewives." Surprisingly, while electricity, running water, and washing machines probably increased household output and reduced the drudgery of household tasks, they had little impact on the time spent on housework before 1965. After 1965, however, time spent by housewives fell by another seven hours, and virtually none of the additional decline could be explained by changes in household composition.

Ramey combines estimates of time spent by children and older people with the time spent by those aged 18 to 64 to form a more complete picture of total time spent in home production. Once changes in household size are taken into account, it appears that the combined hours devoted to home production by all household members have remained relatively constant since 1900.

While the time spent has not changed, what it is spent on has. Ramey reports that in the 1960s, housewives "spent less time on food preparation and clothing care, but more time on care of others and much more time on purchasing, household management, and travel than farmwives and town housewives in the 1920s." Changes in living situations have had a large effect on home production. From 1900 to 1930, single employed women spent an estimated seven hours a week on home production. Most of them lived in boarding houses or with their families and relied on mothers or boarding house keepers for their home production. By 1965, they were spending 17 hours per week in home production. By 2005, time spent had risen to 18.1 hours per week. Non-employed men also increased their housework hours from 11.9 hours in 1900 to 21.2 hours in 2005.

The data also do not support the widespread belief that the time spent on home production falls as income rises. Ramey notes that in the past, lower-income families lived in smaller quarters and often subsisted on monotonous diets of ready-made goods such as bakery breads, sausages, salted fish, and canned goods. Middle and upper-income households had servants that, in 1900, increased the housework hours per household by about ten hours per week. Lower-income families simply produced less household output with the result that "[h]aving clean clothes, clean dishes, a clean house, and well-cared for children was just another luxury the poor could not afford." It is possible that time saving appliances merely replaced servant hours. It is also possible that "the public became aware of the importance of cleanliness and nutrition for families' health as new appliances were appearing, with the result that the demand for housework rose as they were introduced."

-- Linda Gorman


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