Labor (and) time
The concealed (and unfortunate) assumptions that make people joke about their laziness when off the clock
In an ill-advised attempt to be funny, a man tweeted that he had taken to placing notices on his wife's calendar every time he performed a household chore, like taking out the trash or folding the laundry. The frequency of the notices he shared suggested he was making light of his infrequent contributions to keeping up the house. The author took some blowback for the jokes, and he defended himself by saying that his wife was in on the joke. But the problem with the whole affair is that jokes are rarely funny unless they contain some element of the truth. And the truth is that the original joke requires the assumption that the trope of the non-contributing husband be at least somewhat true.
■ Labor Day is as good a day as any to recognize that a huge amount of the work that is done in life doesn't show up in conventional economic accounting. We live with a shadow economy of household chores, child-rearing, time spent on volunteer efforts, independent study, elder care, and even hobbies that, by some metrics, rivals everything we more easily quantify with dollars and cents. This so-called "household production" is disproportionately performed by women -- whether or not they are employed outside the home.
■ Fortunately, there is at least some growing awareness that all of this work, even if not easily measured, certainly counts for something. The sudden closure of schools and workplaces due to the Covid-19 pandemic brought a lot of this poorly-measured labor into the light, and the tightness in the paid labor market brings his to the forefront as well. If people are being offered $15 an hour to work at many entry-level jobs and workplaces are still closing early due to staffing shortfalls, that conveys messages both about how people are valuing the alternatives to conventional employment and about how we should be quantifying the time people are spending outside of work.
■ That doesn't mean we ought to abandon conventional economic and accounting measures (far from it), but it does suggest we ought to consider the whole picture of labor, both when thinking about public policies and when making our own household decisions.
■ Everyone gets the same 24 hours in each day. Nobody gets bonus hours; time is the ultimate equalizer. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "You may delay, but time will not." Thus, the tools that save time around necessary but low-engagement chores are some of the very best contributions that have been made to our overall well-being in a modern society. Dishwashers, microwave ovens, high-efficiency clothes washers, and clever new innovations like robotic vacuums are all huge strides because they save big chunks of time that are too easy to overlook -- or too easy to dismiss with a poorly-considered joke. We need more of them.
■ We also need to value the time that everyone spends in non-employment labor. Even when we're strictly at leisure, we ought to weigh that time in an hourly-value sense. Everyone needs time to recharge, but not all of the 5 leisure hours in an average American adult's day are of the same ultimate value. If Nielsen is measuring right, the vast majority of that leisure time is being spent on TV or some other video entertainment.
■ The labor movement committed a lot of effort to obtaining eight daily hours for "what we will". In all senses of the word, we should be alert to making sure that "what we will" is distributed wisely -- equitably within households, as efficiently as technology will permit, and as reasonably close to its highest use as our need to refresh will permit.