(How) Can Social Policy and Fiscal Policy Recognise Unpaid Family Work?

Article excerpt

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). …