New Statesman journalist Helen Lewis is frustrated. Very, very frustrated. It has occurred to her that although unemployment is very, very low our productivity levels are also stagnating.
Economists have been scratching their heads over this for at least a year. Many point to lack of innovation and training by employers, others to the over-valued pound, and some to an increase in women in the workplace as a small contributor.
Lewis reckons it is down to something else: ‘life admin’ and businesses innovating to make customers do more of the work. But it is the ‘life admin’ that really gets to her. She whines: The sheer effort involved in managing the lives of others — whether young children or elderly parents — eats up our concentration and our leisure time.
Let’s face it: this is the brutal truth. Just think of the increase in productivity if we could all just push our grannies off the bus. It would be huge.
And the kids, for the love of God, please don’t start me on the kids, what with their needs, and their ability to fall off couches and break their collar-bones (my 5-year-old son.) Each time I had a new baby, I did not think, what a beautiful bundle of joy. I knew I was just adding more admin to my life. I was producing a creature that will ‘eat up my concentration and my leisure time.’ My brain deserves better.
Now I am not denying that caring for young children and elderly parents is, of course, time consuming but you are not managing their lives: you are enriching your life. Elderly parents and children are not spreadsheets to be ticked, they are people with human needs. Yes these caring duties can be overwhelming at time, especially with little support – but that neither is the fault of the carer nor granny nor child.
What is even more interesting is how Lewis unwittingly recognises the benefits of role specialisation within the family: that is a full-time worker and a full-time homemaker.
She recognises that up until recently the economy was built for working men with stay-at-home wives. (She is ignoring, it seems, the Industrial Revolution that relied upon both female as well as child labour. When the revolution was over, I reckon those women and children were pretty relieved at being liberated from the dangerous factories and mines). Lewis notes, ‘How some of the pioneers of literature and science were able to get so much done in their chosen field: that was all they did.’
It many cases, this was indeed all the men did. The men were devoted to their chosen field and, with home life cared for, they invented penicillin, they invented the steam engine, they revolutionised the building of automobiles. And we all benefited in return. Remember, if the West was a matriarchy we would all be living in mud huts.
What I found absolutely fascinating, however, was the solution offered by Lewis. It is at this stage of the thinkpiece that we expect the call for more flexible hours, part-time working and essentially huge government regulation of the employment market. Not so. Yes, she says proper recognition of the value of childcare must be made, but also a return to role specialisation.
Lewis: ‘Of course, there is one obvious solution to the difficulty of juggling full-time work and life admin. In the end I told my friend that what she needed was simple: a wife.’ If we give her the benefit of the doubt, and Lewis being a feminist, what she means is a stay-at-home husband, in other words role specialisation.
This kind of advice has been knocking around feminist circles for a while. Marry a man who will support your career, or better still, marry a man who will have no career of this own and support yours. To which I say – fill your boots.
Find him if you can, it probably would increase the productivity of the at-work mother. But I don’t see it working on a macro level as women, especially high-earning women – still want high status, high achieving men. So Lewis is doing battle with biology here. I’ve a pretty good idea who is going to win.