The 21st Century Homemaker

The Hidden Backbone of our Economy

Men and women in Canada and all over the world head out each day to their respective places of employment in order to provide a good life for themselves and their families. This work not only contributes to their personal wellbeing, but it also contributes to the overall economy and is represented in the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Many factors contribute to a nation’s GDP, yet it remains an inaccurate measure of a country’s true economic and social reality.

Homemaking and other domestic work have long contributed to the social and economic wellbeing of any community, large or small. Homemakers have served as the managers of household operations, taking control and care of the home. Despite their important role in society, the economic contributions of homemakers have only been measured on a national scale for a short period of time. Unpaid domestic work is considered a “non-market” activity, meaning that it not counted as part of Canada’s GDP. This also means that it is undervalued in the national accounts.

Work done at home was not always undervalued. Societies with economies based on hunting and gathering generally functioned by dividing work between men and women. This division of labour served purposes of survival. Each individual had a role to play in the wellbeing of the community. Women would gather and care for children collectively, while men hunted for large game.

This arrangement is rooted in principles quite different than those seen in the division of labour between men and women in Canada today. In today’s society, the domestic sphere is private, separate from the economy, and not at all counted in the GDP. Homemaking has become the work hidden behind the scenes.

The “housewife” is vested with responsibility for domestic work. Housewife is a gender specific term used for the primary caregiver in the home. This concept is specific to Canadian, North American and more broadly European-influenced society. The housewife role supports waged work outside of the home, but also depends upon it.

The economy known today in Canada is the result of many changes since the nation’s beginnings. Manufacturing and industry were developed, bringing workers outside of their homes and into local workshops. These places of work were mostly comprised of men, who were paid a wage for their hours worked or units produced. It was this transition that led to the devaluation of domestic work.

Male factory workers earned a wage that was substantial enough to sustain their families, in most cases. Women sometimes found work by doing domestic tasks for others, but the wage was substantially lower than what their male counterparts were bringing home. These women, nonetheless, were considered gainfully employed and contributed to the overall GDP. Domestic tasks within their own homes, however, were not considered or compensated on either account. As “non-market” domestic workers, these women – and now, also men – have been excluded from economic autonomy and from national economic calculations. Waged workers fought hard for rights and benefits through the labour movement, yet domestic workers do not have access to these supports.

During the world wars, due to a shortage of male labour, women took to the factories and performed the traditionally male duties, often for lower wages. These women worked outside of the home while still maintaining their domestic duties. When the men returned, a return to the pre-war status quo was expected.

Many women went back to their domestic responsibilities willingly, but some women opted to remain in the workforce. At the time, many jobs were reserved for single women only; similarly, many jobs were domestic related work. So women could do domestic work in other people’s homes for a wage, yet essentially the same work in their own homes went unnoticed and undervalued.

Over time, as attitudes and perceptions changed, women began to gain parity in the workforce. This has meant so much for women and their autonomy, their ability to choose how they want to live, take care of themselves and their families. This shift has also led to a large demand for domestic workers, as individuals were drawn from their homes and into workplaces. Demand has increased significantly for child and elder care, for example, and for household duties.

According to the United Nations, the unpaid work done by women globally is estimated at $11 trillion USD a year. Globally, women own 1 percent of property overall, and possess less than 5 percent of the world’s income. Yet women do a disproportionately high percentage of the work when also accounting for domestic work. Healthcare Quarterly estimated that in 2007, the annual cost of homemaking (taken at an hourly wage) was an estimated $24 trillion USD when evaluated according to the market rate.

In 1990, Carol Lees, a homemaker from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, risked a fine or jail time by refusing to fill out her 1991 census form. Lees was protesting the government’s classification of her as unemployed, knowing all too well that she worked at least 50 hours per week.

In 1991, Lees prepared an invoice to the Prime Minister for $95,843.76: a conservative estimate for three years of her homemaking services, not including overtime. Lees only accounted for the care of one child; the expenses add up when considering the costs of hiring someone to perform a homemaker’s tasks. These tasks include roles as chef, housecleaner, care provider for children and the elderly, driver, and so on. The bill for all of these services over the course of a year would be just shy of $100,000 a year, or more.

Lees was not prosecuted. Following this incident, changes were made to the 1996 census to recognize the economic contributions of unpaid labour in Canada. Canadians were asked to record the number of hours that they spent on tasks related to child and elder care, housework, yard work and home maintenance. Because of these census changes, important data is available about unpaid work. In 1996, 92 percent of women and 85 percent of men performed some kind of unpaid work or volunteerism in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, women performed 1482 hours of unpaid work annually and men contributed 831 hours.

The role of homemaker has certainly changed over time. Men have increasingly filled the roles and responsibilities of the homemaker. Family structures have also evolved, often with two incomes in each household and many same-sex households. With these changes, domestic work has been redistributed amongst the women, men and children of the family. When it can be afforded, families will hire help for the range of duties to be taken care of within the home.

In the past, homemaking skills were taught and passed down through generations. Some men and women choose to care for the home as a vocational choice. Others may be unemployed or underemployed, with more time to care for their home and families. But the reality remains that most people must balance both outside jobs and domestic duties to ensure the effective and efficient functioning of the family and home.

The economic reality today has meant the loss of secure, lifetime employment that can provide for a family. Employment is increasingly flexible and insecure, characterized by short-term contracts and part-time, seasonal or temporary positions. The benefits that many labourers fought to achieve are a luxury, and not a right, in the current job market.

Homemakers are the foundation of the household and society. In order to truly understand the needs and capacities of communities and the nation, their work needs to be recognized and valued. As C.S. Lewis puts it, “The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only – and that is to support the ultimate career.”

June 20, 2021, 8:24 AM EDT