Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Explaining the Decline in Women's Household Labor: Individual Change and Cohort Differences

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Explaining the Decline in Women's Household Labor: Individual Change and Cohort Differences

Article excerpt

Women's hours of housework have declined, but does this change represent shifts in the behavior of individuals or differences across cohorts? Using data from the National Longitudinal Surveys, individual and cohort change in housework are examined over a 13-year period. Responsibility for household tasks declined 10% from 1974-75 to 1987-88. For individual women, changes in housework are associated with life course shifts in time availability as well as with changes in gender attitudes and marital status, but are not related to changes in relative earnings. Cohort differences exist in responsibility for housework in the mid-1970s and they persist over the 13-year period. Overall, these findings suggest that aggregate changes in women's household labor reflect both individual change and cohort differences.

Key Words: housework, life cycle, social change, women.

Women's and men's family roles have undergone enormous change over the last several decades. The traditional nuclear family, composed of a mother-homemaker and a father-provider, is a reality for only a fraction of today's families (Spain & Bianchi, 1996; Sweet & Bumpass, 1987). This change is reflected in the increasing rate of women, particularly mothers, in the paid labor force (Costello & Stone, 1994; Rexroat, 1992; Rindfuss, Brewster, & Kavee, 1996). Commensurate with this shift in family and work patterns, many early scholars expected a parallel drop in women's household labor and a move to a more equitable division of labor both within and outside the household. Indeed, several trend studies using time diary data describe significant drops in women's household labor between the 1960s and the 1990s, and slight increases in men's household labor (Bianchi, Milkie, Sayer, & Robinson, 2000; Gershuny & Robinson, 1988; Robinson & Godbey, 1997), but change has been slow, and women continue to shoulder much greater responsibility for household labor (Shelton & John, 1996).

Although recent trend studies of housework suggest there has been a change in the average level of housework done by women (Bianchi et al., 2000; Gershuny & Robinson, 1988; Robinson & Godbey, 1997), it remains unclear how much of that change reflects behavioral changes made by individual women and how much it reflects differences across successive cohorts. At one extreme, if housework behaviors, and the gender relations that underlie them, remained perfectly stable for individuals throughout adulthood, differences in housework behavior across successive cohorts of men and women could still result in change. If cohorts begin adulthood with different behaviors, change will occur as newer cohorts replace the old (Firebaugh & Davis, 1988; Ryder, 1965). At the other extreme, change could also occur if individuals alter their housework behaviors throughout adulthood, regardless of whether cohort behaviors differed when they entered adulthood.

Understanding both types of change is important because it helps us better understand the processes generating these changes and provides greater insight into the potential for future change. Cohort differences, particularly if behaviors are shaped early in the life course and then stabilize in adulthood, are an important source of long-term, stable transformation of behaviors or attitudes (Brewster & Padavic, 2000; Firebaugh & Davis, 1988). In contrast, evidence of behavioral change throughout adulthood suggests behaviors that are more malleable. Patterns of change in housework behavior also provide clues about the stability of these behaviors, the gender relations that underlie them, and which other life changes are most closely associated with adjustments in housework behavior.

In this article, we use two comparable, nationally representative samples of American women drawn from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Mature and Young Women. These two data sets allow us to examine change in housework behavior from the mid-1970s to late 1980s (13 years) for five 5-year cohorts of U. …

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