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COMMENTARY | Better technology means higher expectations, and higher expectations create more work.
One of the truisms of modern life is that nobody has any time. Everybody is busy, burned out, swamped, overwhelmed. So let’s try a simple thought experiment. Imagine that you came into possession of a magical new set of technologies that could automate or expedite every single part of your job.
What would you do with the extra time? Maybe you’d pick up a hobby, or have more children, or learn to luxuriate in the additional leisure. But what if I told you that you wouldn’t do any of those things: You would just work the exact same amount of time as before.
I can’t prove this, because I don’t know you. What I do know is that something remarkably similar to my hypothetical happened in the U.S. economy in the 20th century—not in factories, or in modern offices. But inside American homes.
The household economy of cooking, cleaning, mending, washing, and grocery shopping has arguably changed more in the past 100 years than the American factory or the modern office. And its evolution tells an illuminating story about why, no matter what work we do, we never seem to have enough time. In the 20th century, labor-saving household technology improved dramatically, but no labor appears to have been saved.
Technologically, the typical American home of 1900 wasn’t so different from the typical home of 1500. Bereft of modern equipment, it had no electricity. Although some rich families had indoor plumbing, most did not. Family members were responsible for ferrying each drop of water in and out of the house.
The following decades brought a bevy of labor-saving appliances. Air conditioning and modern toilets, for starters. But also refrigerators and freezers, electric irons, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers.
These machines worked miracles. Electric stoves made food prep faster. Automatic washers and dryers cut the time needed to clean a load of clothes. Refrigerators meant that housewives and the help didn’t have to worry about buying fresh food every other day.
Each of these innovations could have saved hours of labor. But none of them did. At first, these new machines compensated for the decline in home servants. (They helped cause that decline, as well.) Then housework expanded to fill the available hours. In 1920, full-time housewives spent 51 hours a week on housework, according to Juliet Schor, an economist and the author of The Overworked American. In the 1950s, they worked 52 hours a week. In the 1960s, they worked 53 hours. Half a century of labor-saving technology does not appear to have saved the typical housewife even one minute of labor.
This might seem impossible. But there are three simple reasons for this—and each has clear implications for why a combination of individual psychology and structural forces makes it so hard for Americans to find more time, even in an economy that is becoming ever more rich and technologically sophisticated.
Better technology means higher expectations—and higher expectations create more work.
For most of history, humans blithely languished in their own filth. Most families’ clothes were washed on a semi-annual basis, and body odor was inescapable. The fleet of housework technologies that sprang into the world between the late-19th and mid-20th century created new norms of cleanliness—for our floors, our clothes, ourselves.
New norms meant more work. Automatic washers and dryers raised our expectations for clean clothes and encouraged people to go out and buy new shirts and pants; housewives therefore had more loads of laundry to wash, dry, and fold. As one 1920s housewife wrote, of her new dusting and mopping and furniture-polish technology, “because we housewives of today have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after dust that grandmother left to a spring cataclysm.”
New home tech also created new kinds of work that absorbed the extra time. For example, refrigerators made it easier to keep food fresh and electric ovens made it faster to cook. But housewives used this convenience to spend more time driving to the supermarket to buy fresh produce to stock the fridge. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, Schor writes, time spent prepping food fell by about 10 hours a week. But time spent shopping for food increased, in part thanks to another 20th-century invention: the supermarket.
In short, technology made it much easier to clean a house to 1890s standards. But by mid-century, Americans didn’t want that old house. They wanted a modern home—with delicious meals and dustless windowsills and glistening floors—and this delicious and dustless glisten required a 40-to-50-hour workweek, even with the assistance of modern tools.
In the 1950s, a British civil servant coined the term Parkinson’s Law to explain the phenomenon that “work expands to fill the available time.” The rule first described the seemingly infinite busywork of government bureaucracies. But it might also apply to housework. Expectations rose, and work expanded to fill the available time.
This story offers one explanation for why leisure hasn’t much increased for many rich workers in the 21st century. We’d collectively prefer more money and more stuff rather than more downtime. We are victims of the curse of want.
A lot of modern overwork is class and status maintenance—for this generation and the next.
As technology has reduced the time it takes to cook a meal or wash a shirt, it's opened up more hours in the day to care for other parts of the house. Such as the little humans living in it.
In the past few decades, child care has been the fastest-growing component of housework. Since the 1980s, American parents—and particularly college-educated mothers and fathers—have nearly doubled the amount of time they spend raising, teaching, driving, and helping their kids. The economist Valerie Ramey chalks it up to a “rug rat race” led by middle- and upper-class parents devoting more hours to prepare their kids for competitive college admissions and a cutthroat labor force.
Ramey sees the rug rat race as, in part, an anxious status- and income-maintenance ritual for the college-educated class. “When my husband [the economist Gary Ramey] and I first looked at this, the research was semi-autobiographical, because we couldn’t believe the amount of pressure our friends were putting on their kids to get ready for college,” she told me. “In the old regime, college-educated parents could get their kids into good schools because the marginal slot was being filled by a first-generation college student,” she said. But today, far more children of college-educated parents are competing for a finite number of seats.
Many young people concerned with burnout don’t have kids. But their motivations are an extension of the same impulse behind concerted parenting—they, too, feel like participants in a pseudo-meritocratic rat race, and they’re terrified of losing status, class, or future income. Young YouTube stars work to exhaustion to meet the expectations of an algorithm that prizes daily content. Lawyers and consultants work overtime to prove to their bosses that they will sacrifice every shred of their personal life to help their firms crush global rivals. Some of these rat-race participants might truly be on the brink of financial emergency. But a lot of them are yuppie workists who have made a secular religion out of the pursuit of status and professional fulfillment. Like Valerie Ramey’s friends, their overwork isn’t so much about avoiding poverty as it is about avoiding the psychically difficult prospect that life, in this generation and the next, isn’t an infinite escalator.
These first two explanations might be compelling, but they’re also incomplete. They both imply that housework and modern work are things that workers have total agency over, when, in fact, most people’s working lives are not entirely theirs to control.
Technology only frees people from work if the boss—or the government, or the economic system—allows it.
Many stay-at-home moms, today and throughout the last century, have been happy to play their crucial role in the family economy. But one thing that Schor emphasizes is that underinvestment in women, and low expectations about their potential in the labor force, have played a big role in forcing many would-be woman employees to stay out of the workforce.
“I think the biggest reason that labor-saving technology in the home didn’t actually reduce labor for housewives is that the opportunity cost of women’s labor was socially valued at zero,” Schor told me. “By that I mean, a lot of men wanted their wives to keep busy but assumed that they would be worthless outside the home, as salaried workers, like lawyers or doctors.” Many women were caught between the husband’s expectation that they be useful and a male-dominated society that blocked them from education and salaried labor. As a result, they had little choice but to spend their full 40- to 50-hour workweek preparing the home for the family.
Housework hours finally fell only when women joined the labor force en masse. Since the 1960s, the share of women in the workforce has increased by about 50 percent. In that time, the typical adult woman has decreased her housework hours by about one-third, according to analysis by the economist Valerie Ramey. That is, the one thing that finally reduced labor in the home was … labor outside of the home.
What does this history tell us about life in the 21st century? Bosses set hours and income, and workers adjust. When husbands controlled their wives’ schedules, they insisted on a clean and tidy home and a ready-made dinner; and their wives typically obliged. When today’s employers hire a full-time worker under modern labor laws, they insist on a 40-hour week, or more; and the worker typically obliges. It doesn’t matter whether technology stays the same, or improves by leaps and bounds. The workweek is fixed and predetermined. A meaningful, economy-wide reduction in work hours would likely require changing the laws that determine the relationship between employers and employees.
Let’s return to the original question: Why don’t Americans have more free time? In my experience, the debate over labor and leisure is often fought between the Self-Helpers and the Socialists. The Self-Helpers say that individuals have agency to solve their problems and can reduce their anxiety through new habits and values. The Socialists say that this individualist ethos is a dangerous myth. Instead, they insist that almost all modern anxieties arise from structural inequalities that require structural solutions, like a dramatic reconfiguration of the economy and stronger labor laws to protect worker rights.
The history of American housework suggests that both sides have a point. Americans tend to use new productivity and technology to buy a better life rather than to enjoy more downtime in inferior conditions. And when material concerns are mostly met, Americans fixate on their status and class, and that of their children, and work tirelessly to preserve and grow it.
But most Americans don’t have the economic or political power to negotiate a better deal for themselves. Their working hours and income are shaped by higher powers, like bosses, federal laws, and societal expectations.
To solve the problems of overwork and time starvation, we have to recognize both that individuals have the agency to make small changes to improve their lives and that, without broader changes to our laws and norms and social expectations, no amount of overwork will ever be enough.
Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology, and the media.