By Joanna Roughton.
After years of prevaricating, I have given in.
Yes, dear reader, I have hired a cleaner. Just two hours a week, scarcely enough time to pick up the dirty clothes thrown onto the floor by six lazy schoolchildren, but another rifle pointed from the trenches at the monster of domestic squalor.
It’s amazing what a cleaner can do in a couple of hours. Totally focused on her job, her efforts put mine to shame.
Hitherto, I have avoided hiring a cleaner because of my previous experience. The cleaner was great. But seeing a pristine home transformed into something far messier in a matter of minutes, the moment the kids returned from school, was enough to put me off domestic help for years.
There was also the cost. The old cleaner came for three hours, three times a week. The new one will be with us weekly, and just for the two hours. She comes via an agency, who charge me £28 for two hours, of which £20 goes to the cleaner.
I thought about these modest sums in relation to the annual publication of unpaid work data by the Office for National Statistics.
This blog has heralded these figures before as the biggest step forward in home-making public relations for years.
And this year’s figures do not disappoint, as I’m about to relate. The only negative caveat is the almost total lack of follow-up in the national press.
So, the numbers then. The ONS values unpaid work done in the UK at £1 trillion. That is equivalent to about 56 per cent of the UK’s total GDP.
This includes every kind of household chore, from cooking to cleaning, from DIY to gardening. There is a gender bias to the results. The ONS found that women do twice the work men do around the home. On average, men do 16 hours a week of cooking, childcare, eldercare and housework – which includes things like laundry and cleaning. For women the figure rises to 26 hours.
The only family activity where men outperform women is where ‘dad’s taxi’ is concerned. Menfolk spend more time than women ferrying children around. They also spend more time commuting, which is deemed by the ONS to be unpaid work, and so included in the overall data.
This year’s figures do include an eye-catching and potentially very useful statistical innovation. The ONS has launched an ‘unpaid work calculator’, designed to help people work out the value of all the unpaid labour they provide.
Using this calculator, one hour of housework is equivalent to £8.58 a week or £446 a year. One hour of childcare is calculated to be worth £15.28 per week or £795 per annum. Meal preparation comes in at £7.63, or £397. Transport, be that taking a toddler to a playdate or commuting to work, is said to be worth £11.24 or £584.
I’m not sure I could hire a taxi for £11.24 per hour, but the broad point is useful.
The ONS says its calculator is based on data from earnings across the UK workforce in 2016 and is based on the principle of what one would pay someone to do the job instead of oneself. The average man would earn £166.63 more per week if his unpaid work was remunerated, whereas the average woman would earn £259.63.
And what happened when I used the calculator? Well, let’s just say that – at £20 a week – the new cleaner is a bargain, as I shall be reminding my husband.
Two stories published this week – seemingly unconnected – but with one underlying message.
The first – fittingly since the hype around the absurdity of Black Friday reached new heights – concerns retailers. A report by the International Longevity Centre posits the idea that our town centres are, increasingly, off limits to old folk.
Feral teenagers and a fear of crime? A shortage of transport?
No, the reason elderly citizens are giving the shops a swerve is because there is nowhere for them to take a breather when they get there.
The Longevity Centre study found that one in five over-70s are put off shopping in town because of lack of somewhere to sit. Retailers, reluctant to ‘waste’ expensive square floor footage on benches or chairs, have reduced the amount of seating on offer.
Shops, for older people, are becoming less habitable.
The second story features property developers. And, on the surface, appears to present an opposite worldview.
This is the news that there has been a big increase in the number of shops being converted into flats in England
Shops, for younger people, are becoming more habitable.
In the year up to March 2016 the number of properties where there has been a ‘change of use’ rose by a third, from 20,650 to 30,600. The bulk were shops converted to accommodation, the rest were changed into residential units from offices.
What kind of homes do offices and shops make?
They can be wonderful. And they can be the only way that empty town centre units can be brought back to life.
But there is obviously a risk that a building constructed with one purpose in mind, is inadequate for another. Offices and shops use space differently. There are rarely gardens, or traditional parking. Imaginatively redesigned, they can produce fabulous open-plan living spaces. Botched, they can be a windowless box.
I draw a line between these two stories, because they offer a contradiction. On the one hand, town centres provide fewer places to sit, even as they offer more places to sleep. The reality, of course, is that age lies behind this discrepancy.
Our town centres are, increasingly, places of vanishing inter-generationality.
Because the shops and offices that are being turned into ‘funky’ loft spaces are not appealing to many older people. Nor do they attract much interest from families with children, for whom open-plan living is not always conducive to a good night’s sleep for a toddler.
And the shops which do not offer anywhere for the old to rest their weary feet also favour the youthful and strong limbed. The none-too-subliminal symbolism is hard to miss.
Town centres are places for the young. They are places of rejuvenation, of change, of movement. Where a building can morph from shop to office to bed-sit and back again in the space of a decade. Or less. Where shops focus on foot-fall and rapid ‘flows’ of people from door to till. No time for dawdling, dear.
Is any of this avoidable, or for that matter, undesirable?
I certainly think it is step in the wrong direction. People should not live in silos – defined by age or family status. Some of our town centres are now almost exclusively populated by young, urban professionals. Their day-to-day contact with people whose experience of life might be longer and more varied, is highly limited.
The flipside of this is that are suburbs which have become retirement villages, greatly in need of an infusion of youthful vitality and the idealism which characterises the inexperience of innocence.
We cannot, by law or compulsion, make different generations live together. So, I’m afraid, this is currently a problem without an obvious solution.
By Joanna Roughton.
‘Children Develop Faster When Their Mothers Go Out To Work’.
So said a headline on the front page of the Times of London this week.
It quoted academics from Oxford University. They claimed to have established that children whose mothers were not working had lower capabilities across ‘four measures of development’; talking, everyday tasks (like washing hands), social skills and movement.
The study stated that, by way of stark contrast, kids spending time at nursery did better.
Paying a stranger to bring up our children with other children meant a 10 per cent improvement in the performance of those everyday tasks.
With a crushing predictability one of the report’s co-authors, Oxford University’s Laurence Roope, giddily vaulted the imaginary line which must have once separated research and lobbying with these quotes.
“Time spent in daycare,” he said [has] “…a strongly positive effect. It’s very important for policymakers to support working mothers through flexible working and providing….good quality nurseries.”
Uhm. Good quality nurseries, eh?
As we know, getting smart, motivated people into daycare is proving to be a challenge. But what’s really interesting, I would submit, is that the authors, having elected to become lobbyists, do not lobby in a different direction.
Because the same research also found that when grandparents take care of children, there is a 5 per cent rise in ‘talking skills’ and a 10 per cent improvement in social skills.
Common sense suggests there is some truth at work here. Grandparents, by dint of belonging to an older generation, are more likely to be sticklers for P’s and Q’s.
Their vocabulary is likely to be richer. Having corrected their children’s solecisms, they are naturally trained to help their grandchildren.
And yet the authors do not seem to be advocating a push for more care to be provided inter-generationally within a family. They appear to prefer ignoring the family and contracting-out parenting to strangers either employed or regulated by the state.
The other problem with this research is summed up by the commentator Libby Purves. She wrote: “[the] research was either done among the more hopeless, deprived and depressed families, where mothers stare at the telly all day, or among the particularly stupid super-rich where mothers shop and socialise and leave the infants in the care of a duff au pair who resents the lot of them.”
Libby Purves correctly identifies the enduring drawback of so much data crunching, particularly where families are concerned.
Very often, it seems to me, the good things that are going on in a family are magnified when the family is stable. The corollary of that is that when a family is unstable, chaotic, vulnerable – call it what we must – then the things which make a happy family happier, make an unhappy family glummer.
For instance a study published this week by Florida Atlantic University, and widely reported, showed how siblings can adversely influence each other. The research argued that a youngster is more likely to pick up bad habits – boozing, taking drugs – from a brother or sister than anyone else. Their influence is greater than parents or peers at school.
On one level this is obvious. Siblings usually spend a lot of time together and a younger child sometimes idolises an older child and uses them as a role model.
But plenty of other research is out there (some of it drawn together in a book my husband wrote for the think-tank Civitas) which demonstrates the protective effect of siblings. The point is that where a family is functional, siblings are a catalyst for good behaviour. Where a family has problems, those difficulties can be exacerbated by siblings.
And so, I would argue, the same analysis can be applied to a lot of family research. Naturally, researchers try and ‘control’ for background but, as Libby Purves hints, it is reasonable to imagine that hapless stay-at-home parents do not represent all stay-at-home parents.
There is, to be callous for a moment, a world of difference between a home-maker who has decided to forfeit a career and who brings her life-skills to bear on the home, and a young mum, perhaps straight out of school, who has never – and may never – do a job.
By Joanna Roughton.
Which emotion most characterises modern parenthood? Joy? Fulfilment? If only. I’m putting my money on guilt. It’s rarely justified, but boy oh boy, it’s increasingly the way mums and dads are encouraged to relate to their role as child-rearers.
Take a story in the Daily Mail at the weekend. Just remember. The Mail is the most read news website in the world. So this is a media outlet with serious reach.
This article, which attracted more than a few clicks, opened with the following words: “Parents spend more time taking care of housework than they do playing with their children, a study has found.”
It went on: “Humdrum admin tasks and cleaning jobs mean parents are struggling to get quality time with their children, but many admit that ignoring the chores isn’t an option as it leaves them feeling too stressed.
“The study found the average parent spends almost four hours a day completing household chores, which amounts to over two months every year. In comparison, just three hours and 28 minutes a week is spent enjoying time with their children.
“Long working hours, busy diaries, social calendars and children preferring to watch TV were also blamed for getting in the way of family time.”
Wow. Mea maxima culpa guys. Fancy putting all that ironing ahead of finger painting with the kids.
What balderdash. And what tosh on several levels.
First, a good parent has to prioritise, and putting a functional home near the top of that list of priorities is sound – not slapdash – parenting. Edible food, clean work surfaces, school uniforms which are fit to wear. These are not optional “humdrum” extras. Unless you are rich enough to contract out these jobs to a housekeeper or nanny – and only a tiny minority can – then these things are vital.
If you don’t believe me ask a child whether they’d rather spend “quality time” with parents, or go to school wearing a smelly shirt.
Second, the notion that mothers and fathers should consider a central role of parenting to be the entertainment of their offspring is a modern idea with unproven repercussions. It is rooted in the blurring of roles, a narrowing of the distance between those bringing up and those being brought up. Fashionable parenting doctrine urges parents to see themselves as friends to their young, and relegates the pedagogical. As I have heard myself say to my children before: “I am your parent first, and your friend second, I am not here to win you approval.”
Third, let us parse that last quote in the article above. Having blasted housework as the villain of the piece, we then hear that “long working hours, busy diaries, social calendars and children preferring to watch TV were also blamed for getting in the way of family time.”
Now, it’s obviously inconvenient to so much as hint at the outdated fancy that “long working hours” might play a role in diminishing the amount of ‘quality time’ parents spend with their kids, but it does rather all seem to be of a piece with the conventional wisdom – for women mainly – that working is natural, a right, a necessity – and not a choice.
In reality the biggest threat to ‘quality time’ with children is not housework, it’s work. And this brings me to my fourth point.
Why are the authors of the report not exploring or acknowledging the possibility that it is the explosion in the number of households where no parent is at home that lies at the root of any diminution in the amount of time adults and children spend together.
I would submit it might be because that, where stories about family life are concerned, there’s usually an angle. Academic work is mostly trustworthy, reports from campaign groups less so, and the output of company press offices least reliable of all. The survey on which this Daily Mail story was based came from – you guessed it – a business which makes, er…, beds. It would be a brave corporate press officer indeed who produced a press release which noted the pretty obvious verity that a child can expect to see less of mum if she’s at work. But then a mum who works and has disposable income is more likely to buy a bed, right?
Fifth and final point. What is the effect of making parents feel guilty? The impact is to raise the bar of parenting. My husband says the rising expectations of parenting have created a gold standard of child-rearing which can only be met by the parents of one or two children – small families – or by those rich enough to get others to do the heavy lifting of parenting. So the consequence of all those – seemingly innocuous – stories, is to make having children less attractive and, therefore, smaller or ‘childless families’, more appealing.
By Joanna Roughton.
This week Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, launched a new cyber-security strategy for the UK.
He announced £1.9bn in extra funding, with new, very clever, highly computer-literate spooks soon to be hired to help him spend it all.
The biggest threat, he told 4,000 Microsoft workers in East London, was likely to be a state actor. Nobody mentioned Russia, but Moscow and Beijing are clearly in the frame.
And what mischief might they be up to? NHS databases, the National Grid, air traffic control. All vulnerable.
Another vulnerability too. The home. Specifically, the ‘internet of things’ – the next generation of world wide web penetration into ordinary lives, which leave futurologists speaking in hushed and reverential tones.
Experts asked to comment on Mr Hammond’s initiative made clear that the ‘internet of things’ made the places where we live especially apt for exploitation.
This is fascinating. We are used to the idea of government cyber attackers conducting economic and military espionage, trying to hack into Pentagon computers, maybe even the phone records of public sector employees.
Now the home is on the front line of the cold war in cyberspace. Cameras set up to help householders keep an eye on things might, instead, be used by a foreign power to keep an eye on householders.
At the risk of hyperbole, a pattern is emerging here. Recently, I wrote about the lengths home delivery firms are going to in order to ensure packages make it to their intended recipients.
But the notion that the home is newly susceptible to the predations of foreign spy agencies takes things to a new level.
The key point is that the vulnerability that might be exploited is presented as a problem with cameras and computers. In reality the problem is one of empty homes. The ‘internet of things’ is all about how we can remotely control our home – the fridge, central heating and the rest of it – when we are not there.
The ‘internet of things’ is a sympton of a new epidemic.
Let’s call it Empty House Syndrome.
In a world of working mothers, homes have never been emptier for longer.
In a world of growing holiday home ownership, homes have never been emptier for longer.
In a world where the fashion for solitary living – only partly a function of rising rates of separation – homes have never been emptier for longer.
Never before in human history have the dwelling places of so many of our fellow citizens been devoid of humanity for so long.
Empty Home Syndrome. You heard it here first.
By Joanna Roughton.
Housework can add three years to your life.
It’s the headline in several write-ups of research by Dr Klodian Dhana and her team at the University Medical Centre in Rotterdam.
Dr Dhana’s study looked at 7,000 men and women. It found that a 55-year-old woman who cleans, vacuums and does the laundry will, on average, live to 86.
A woman who avoids domestic chores, typically, only makes it to 83.
When it comes to academic reports, there have been many variations on this theme. There is a bulging back-catalogue of news items based on robust data, which purport to show that running a home has health benefits for the person doing the running.
Conversely, there are other reports – a much smaller number admittedly – which volunteer an alternative reality. That housework can be bad for you.
Of course, for news outlets which have an unhealthy obsession with health stories, we end up with a see-saw effect. A newspaper like the Daily Express, for example, which has decided that medical reports appeal to its readers (who tend to be older and thus more health conscious), can end up sounding schizophrenic.
Today red wine stops cancer, tomorrow it stops it, and so on.
Media outlets tend to underplay two key points. First, that not all studies are equal. The research I quoted above, from Rotterdam University, is by plausible academics using a large data set.
Other ‘reports’, cobbled together by public relations executive, using small sample surveys, should be treated with far more caution. They usually have an ‘angle’, and often cannot stand up to rigorous scrutiny.
The second point is simply that cause is not always correlation.
Take, again, the new Rotterdam University study about housework. It suggests that housewives are healthy because they do housework. It may be that there are lots of other reasons – and housework is simply one of the things which this group has in common.
A woman who does lots around the home may also take more care of her health generally, might not drink to excess or take drugs, might enjoy better mental health or lead a less stressful life than someone who leads an alternative lifestyle.
The fact she does lots of housework may be incidental, not decisive.
One other point about stories like the one based on Rotterdam University’s work. For all that it is welcome to hear that housework improves health, such a report is typical of the thrust of much research in this field.
The focus tends to be on the individual.
There is, obviously, work about households, but it tends to be skewed towards economics. Which is why the Home Renaissance Foundation’s Global Home Index represents, to me, a step in an interesting new direction.
Because it looks at how the culture, the usefulness, the utility of a home – that wonderful, ancient collective – can succeed or fail.
What creates a good home may be good housework. But it is also lots of other things, not all of which will be of immediate manifest benefit to an individual.
For example, the policy consensus which has evolved around the idea of working women, completely ignores the deleterious impact of fewer home-makers on the home. The data focusses on the individual, not the collective. This is an anomaly, which in its own modest way, the Global Home Index might help correct.
By Joanna Roughton.
A word to the wise. When Amazon, or another big American tech company, tell us that the future is nigh – reach for a pinch full of salt.
In the last fortnight alone I have heard of plans to deliver emergency blood supplies by drone in war-torn Rwanda. And of a proposal to ensure every new home has a charging point for an electric car.
These are laudable, noble ambitions. And a world without ambition would be a poorer place. But are they on the point of happening? Or is a PR team congratulating itself somewhere for another publicity coup or two?
Amazon’s latest wheeze is typical. It addresses the growing fashion for home deliveries. There is a Klondyke-style rush to secure the riches of the ‘straight to your doorstep’ boom. It’s a classic illustration of capitalism’s bias towards creative destruction. High-streets are littered with empty retail units as more customers elect to have products brought to them by a courier.
Amazon’s plan seeks to solve the biggest and most obvious pitfall with home deliveries – that the home is empty when the delivery driver calls. The company says it will offer households the chance to create a secure storage area. The door, perhaps to a lobby, utility room or garage, would be opened with an access code. That code would change after each delivery and the driver sent a text with a new code before each new drop off.
It will, claims Amazon, circumvent the most annoying aspect of home deliveries – The Card. The card that waits for our return announcing that the parcel has gone to a depot because you, the naughty customer, didn’t ensure anyone was at home when Amazon called. If the technology can be made to work, this sounds like a sensible idea.
But, in terms of the philosophy of the home, it is another example of how society increasingly accepts the home as a space empty and often devoid of human agency. The idea that there might be some benefit to a home occupied and managed by a real, living person does not feature in any nascent debate about how much a home ought to be colonised by technological housekeepers.
The debate, in fact, is non-existent.
It is taken as a given by every corporate entity, arm of government, media outlet and technologist – that the home has to be an empty shell for much of the time. How else can homeowners perform their principal societal function – of going to work and making the only contribution which seems to matter under our new dispensation – to earn a wage.
What a load of balderdash!
As this column has argued before, the ledger is only half filled in at the moment. A home – to operate optimally – has to be lived in. There. It sounds such a facile thing to say. But how else can it be run to its full potential?
This is not just about having the time to create an environment apt to nurture a spouse and relatives from more than one generation. It is not just about having the potential to care for children, clean, cook and launder without recourse to sub-contractors.
It is also about being there for unexpected visitors. Business imagines that this means them. But mainly it means neighbours. Because people know I might well be there, my home is often a place where the doorbell rings unexpectedly.
Usually it’s just a social call, but it might be more pressing. An elderly neighbour who needs help getting to hospital. A working parent who cannot take care of a sick child and asks for my assistance as an emergency child-minder.
How do we put a price on this utility? How can we weigh the benefit of the social cohesion which springs from this neighbourliness? It is not Amazon’s duty to answer that question.
But it should be something which occurs to those we elect to govern our lives.
By Joanna Roughton.
Does size matter when it comes to a happy home?
If you’re British, like me, you’d better hope not.
According to a new study from Cambridge University academics, Malcolm Morgan and Heather Cruickshank, the UK leads the developed world in homes fit for hobbits.
The average British newly-built home is a mere 76 square metres, compared to 137 square metres in Denmark, 109.2 in Germany, 112.8 in France and 115.5 in supposedly crowded Holland.
The HRF has frequently debated one immediate impact of this shrinkage.
Dining rooms are disappearing. Hard-pressed architects – given a dwindling budget and a diminishing floor space to work with – realise that a family dining room is a luxury.
The lucky ones can do something imaginative with a kitchen diner. The rest must guiltily sketch out a design which, they must know, can only mean meals to be taken on a sofa in front of a TV.
But what must be the effect of the walls closing in beyond meal times?
For one thing, storage is a nightmare in such tiny homes. The lucky ones have a boarded-out loft or a garage which doubles as a repository for household junk. The rest must rent storage off-site.
With small homes everything else tends to be shrunk too. That means postage stamp gardens, no parking and roads just about wide enough for two cyclists to pass one another easily – if rarely two cars.
The sense of claustrophobia is palpable in a couple of the newly built British homes I’ve been inside recently.
And I conjure up the idea of a phobia because there has to be some psychological impact to living in a home where there is not enough room to swing the proverbial cat.
For one thing, such homes do not allow for redundant space. Older homes, really old homes especially, often use space inefficiently.
But the effect of these useless nooks and crannies is strangely liberating. My last home but one was built in the Victorian-era. Many of the rooms had – by modern standards – absurdly high ceilings.
Modernists say that represents folly. What’s the point of heating up hundreds of cubic metres of pointless dead air? The point, surely, was to stop a home feeling like a cramped cave.
Now we hear stories about new homes so small that furniture-makers are having to redesign furniture to give it a chance of occupying a miniature lounge or bedroom. Sofas have shrunk, beds too.
Of course, a small home is better than no home.
But, might it be possible to insist, as a condition for planning approval, that there ought to be a statutory minimum room size? Can we imagine a time when Parliament might set a legal requirement for new homes to include a reasonable dining space – with all the health and social benefits which flow from that?
Builders would demand something in return.
Land is expensive in the UK, and when a developer increases the footprint of a new home, he reduces his profits. One answer is to make land cheaper and, since ‘they’re no longer making land’, opening up the green belt to the bulldozers might represent the only solution.
It would be unpopular with many of my neighbours, who already have large homes in the country, but be a boon for those whose new homes are otherwise likely to retain the unenviable title of The Smallest in the Western World.