Retired men do more housework but save the champagne

February 15, 2015

Apparently I once told my partner I found housework therapeutic and he said “This is the girl for me.” I don’t recall this conversation. What I do recall is the late Sydney feminist Edna Ryan telling young women that dust-free skirting boards were a sign women needed a proper job. They were doing too much housework.

If you’ve survived as a couple into your 50s or 60s then you’ve probably survived the housework wars. Some couples never made it. They split up over unwashed dishes, grimy toilet bowls, and childcare pick-ups. Or what these lapses came to represent. Housework was a political issue in our younger years. Not for everyone of course. Some women loved to do it all. The average woman does twice as much housework and childcare as the average man even when she works full-time. We became aware of this in the 1990s when the Australian Bureau of Statistics did the first Time Use Surveys, asking men and women to fill out detailed diaries of what they did in a day. Some women got really annoyed when it was laid bare. Hey, that’s why we’re so tired. Men who didn’t iron or cook just didn’t seem sexy any more.

So what happens in later life when the kids are grown? I was interested to find out. It turns out men in the retirement years do more household work than they did in mid-life. And women in their 60s and 70s cut back a tiny bit. But the women on average are still doing a lot more than the men.

I’m grateful to demographer Bernard Salt for his analysis of the 2011 Census figures on ‘unpaid household work,’ a definition which also covers gardening and home maintenance. Men between the ages of 65 and 84 say they do about 86 minutes of household work a day; that’s a clear increase on the 62 minutes men aged 35 to 44 typically do. Retired men have more time to do the odd-jobs, fix up the house, cook some meals. Is this your experience? And older women? Yes they cut back compared to women aged 35 to 44, caught in the demanding childrearing years. But it turns out women between the ages of 65 and 74 cut back by only five minutes a day! Instead of doing 151 minutes of housework a day as they did in their 30s and 40s, they’re doing 146 minutes, according to Salt. That’s not twice as much as men any more but still a lot more.

What’s going on here? Are women still carrying an unfair load? I pondered the question as I embarked on the first heavy house-cleaning I’ve done in aeons. We were having house-guests. I put on my glasses and looked at the skirting boards in the spare room for the first time since Edna Ryan told me not to. They were in a sorry state. Not just the dust, but the black and grimy marks on the white paint; and not just the skirting boards, but all the woodwork, and the white walls, too.

Many middle-class people have cleaners. I’d been ideologically opposed to having someone clean up after me. Then I gave birth to my second son. With two young children and a job, I weakened. So thanks mainly to Gemma, my house is respectable. But I would never ask a cleaner to attend to skirting boards and walls. And my husband, who’s actually a better cleaner than I am, had already tackled skirting boards in other rooms.

You know what? I did find cleaning therapeutic. The skirting boards led me to the kitchen cupboards, and the kitchen cupboards to the bathroom medicine cabinet, and so on. Cleaning gave me time to think about those statistics.

Why are older women doing almost as much housework as mid-life women? Some may still have adult children living at home. Even those like mine who can cook and iron (and thus qualify as desirable husbands one day) add to, rather than subtract from, the sum total of household work. “Older offspring do more than younger ones but tend to replace what fathers do rather than mothers,” Professor Lyn Craig, of the Social Policy Research Centre, an expert on division of labour, told me.

It’s also possible that as women retire from the workforce they’re happy to do more household chores. When a woman moves from being a full-time housewife into the paid workforce, she does many fewer hours of housework, the ABS shows. But her husband doesn’t pick up the slack. The work she used to do at home just doesn’t get done.

But does it matter? I wonder if what Edna Ryan told young women applies equally to us older women. If our skirting boards are too clean is it a sign we should be doing something more worthwhile with our lives? Or is it alright to take pleasure in the domestic? As for men, it’s great they’re tackling the maintenance backlog. But some guys, deprived of the power they once exercised at work, become fastidious tyrants over dishwashers, washing lines, and cutlery drawers. At some point housework can become for retirees a means of filling time. Or do you disagree?

My cleaning binge reminded me why the women’s movement ignited in the first place – the undervaluing of “women’s work.” No-one in the family noticed the difference until I insisted on giving them a tour.

I’d love to hear your views on housework. Please leave a comment.
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