Covid and the household economy crisis

Even before the pandemic, the squeeze on household time and income had reached crisis point. Ursula Huws examines social reproduction in the digital age

June 16, 2021 · 14 min read

Old advertisement featuring happy housewives with vaccuum cleaners and one sad housewife with dustpan and brush

Life under the pandemic reminds us of many things, but perhaps none more sharply than the importance of what goes on in our homes – not just to our daily lives but to capitalism. It is no accident that the origin of the word ‘economics’ goes back to a Greek word meaning ‘household management’, formed by linking ‘oikos’, meaning ‘household’, with ‘meno’, meaning ‘manage’ or ‘distribute’.  Far from being a place of escape from capitalism, the home sits at its economic core. But, unlike the workplace, where half a century of equal opportunities legislation has set out some limits on the extent to which men and women can be treated differently, the household remains a site where gender inequality can run wild.

After four decades of apparent progress towards gender equality, the pandemic has exposed this in a particularly stark way. There is overwhelming evidence that it is women who have to struggle most to combine work with keeping the children schooled, quiet or entertained in locked down households, and are exposed to intensified risks of domestic violence. As a London Evening Standard headline put it in November 2020: Coronavirus pandemic “could set gender equality back 25 years”’.

It is common for some socialists to think of the economy as something that happens somewhere else – out there in the workplace, where workers toil to produce value for capitalists and organise to claw back a share of this value for themselves in the form of wages. They see the home as a place of rest and leisure – a refuge from this harsh external environment, where the worker relaxes and recuperates.

Yet, as feminists have been pointing out for over a century, the ‘spare’ time spent at home is often anything but. Much of it is spent on the labour needed for sustaining workers and their families, caring for dependents, cleaning, laundering, shopping, cooking, maintaining and improving homes, and repairing and replacing possessions.


As far as capitalism is concerned, the home is also the site of consumption where the value from paid labour is realised, as well as where rents are extracted, whether these are for supplying financial services (such as mortgages or insurance), utilities (such as broadband, video streaming services, energy or water) or the very use of the property itself.

The pandemic has exacerbated and made visible some trends that were already gathering pace before it struck: a growing crisis in social reproduction that has been building up for years, reaching danger point since the financial crisis of 2008. Underlying this crisis, like an ever-tightening coiled spring, is the tension in our lives between time scarcity and money scarcity.

Household economy in crisis

To understand the scale of this crisis of the household economy and its significance in today’s pandemic we must go back to the mid-20th century, when the post-war deal struck between capital and labour gave us a welfare state and a new set of workers’ rights, which, for a while, seemed to solve many of the problems of the ‘hungry thirties’. This deal gave the majority of working-class households an unprecedented level of security, relieving them from the worry of falling into destitution in old age or when unemployed or sick. Nevertheless, it was built on a social compromise that was to prove unsustainable in the long term, both for individuals and for capitalism in general.

This compromise was premised on a gender division of labour whereby men went out to work to earn a ‘family wage’ that supported a stay-at-home wife who brought up the children, cared for the sick and elderly, and took care of the housework. The model was never as universal as it seemed. Unskilled casual or seasonal workers and recently arrived immigrants had incomes that were too low or unpredictable to enable them to live in this way and many households did not fit the nuclear family stereotype. While single women never left the workforce, some married women also remained in it, albeit often confined to low-paid ghettoes of part-time jobs without promotion prospects. The economy, meanwhile, was expanding, creating new jobs in offices, banks, shops and other services for which these part-time workers were a perfect fit.

Buttressed though it was by a scaffolding of regulations (such as bans on women continuing to work as teachers or civil servants once they were married, and bars to obtaining a mortgage without a male guarantor) this model was already creaking at the seams by the end of the 1960s. By then, it was being challenged on various fronts by a confident generation of women, products of the welfare state’s opening up of secondary education, who found it intolerably stifling, and campaigned, among other things, for equality in the workplace, financial independence, childcare services and safe refuges for victims of domestic violence. Often mischaracterised in retrospect as exclusively white and middle class, this movement actually included many working-class women and some of colour, as can be attested by major strikes at the Ford factory in Dagenham in 1968, in a range of clothing factories in Leeds in 1970, at the Trico windshield wiper factory in 1976 and at the Grunwick film processing laboratory in the same year.

These actions meshed with other developments to cement women’s place in the workforce, adding pressure for an equalisation of rights there. By the 1980s, as neoliberal policies kicked in, it was normal in a two-adult household for both to be earners. As the family wage and the stay-at-home housewife became rarities, women’s progress was measured by their achievements in the workplace. Other feminist demands were relegated to the background as swingeing public spending cuts closed nurseries, reduced the value of benefits and removed support services for carers. But women were deemed to be striding towards equality if they had succeeded in ‘closing the gender wage gap’ or acquired more management jobs.

The reduction in value of the male wage was disguised both by the growth in women’s earnings and by the cheapness of imported goods, especially after 1990 when globalisation opened up the whole world as a source of cheap labour. And then there was credit. As the new millennium dawned, the go-to solution for households that found themselves short of cash at the end of the month was to stick it on the credit card. On top of this, workers were tempted to take out mortgages, adding to the debt bubble that proved unsustainable. This debt was not only one of the causes of the 2008 financial crisis but, when credit was abruptly withdrawn, also a major contributor to the hardship experienced by households in its aftermath.

Multiple whammy

After the crash, many households were thus hit by a multiple whammy. There was a further decline in their incomes; an end to easy credit; a rise in the price of consumer goods; a fall in the value of benefits; and a dramatic cut in public spending on care services. All this at a time when the population was ageing and the demand for care at an all-time high.

An intense squeeze was placed on households as time demands grew while incomes shrank – a squeeze felt particularly acutely by women. Even before the pandemic, this had reached crisis point.

It is clear that many have been substituting money for time in a number of ways since the crisis

As household members try to find ways to ease the emotional and financial strains – not to mention the exhaustion – of trying to combine productive and reproductive work, they look for practical strategies to earn more money on the one hand and to spend less time on housework on the other – goals that pull in opposite directions, ratcheting up the pressure.

It is clear that many have been substituting money for time in a number of ways since the crisis. For example, annual spending on chilled ready meals went up from £980 million to £1,688 million in the decade from 2008 to 2018. There has also been a growth in paying for help with household chores. Because much of this work is carried out in the informal economy, paid in cash, reliable statistics are scarce, but one survey found that in 2011 approximately six million people in the UK were employing a cleaner compared with five million a decade earlier. A third said that they did so because they did not have the time to do the work themselves, rising to nearly half among those aged 18-32.

Another survey, using a broader definition that included window-cleaners, gardeners and handymen, found one UK household in three paying for some form of domestic help in 2016, with particularly high rates among the under 35s. Even among households with incomes of less than £20,000 per year, one in four were doing so.  In other words, people were turning to the market to obtain the goods and services they had no time to produce for themselves – to the benefit of capitalism.

Seismic upheavals

To understand the full implications of these trends, we need to pan out from the closeup view of the beleaguered household to the broader upheavals in capitalism with which that household’s fate is so intimately entangled. This lets us see how the restructuring of labour markets – on which people rely for their incomes – is linked with the opening up of new business models and markets and the marketisation and commodification of the public and household services on which these same people rely to support their family lives. It shows us, in other words, how the crisis of capitalism is inextricably linked with a crisis of social reproduction for the working class.

Each crisis in the history of capitalism has been followed by a seismic upheaval in which some firms go bust, others transform themselves to remain profitable, while still others emerge with new ideas for new commodities. It is in the process of inventing or reinventing themselves that they are most likely to seize on new technologies.

In the 1920s, these new technologies included electricity and the motor car. The 1970s brought computer technologies as well as the emergence, under the Thatcher government, of new kinds of firms that made their profits out of economic activities that had previously been publicly owned. Each phase of restructuring draws on technologies and business models developed in the previous period and applies them in expanded ways, so that trends that previously seemed minor suddenly reach critical mass.

The 2008 financial crisis was no exception. Some firms went to the wall. Others used new digital forms of automation to revolutionise their production methods, thus making some workers redundant and deskilling others. Some, with the active connivance of right-wing governments, derived new sources of profit from lucrative public service contracts, including many that directly impinge on household labour – for example, in care services. But digital technologies were also used to develop entirely new models for the delivery of services, supplied directly, through the market, taking a cut from the value of each transaction by way of profit. After a period of maturation, these new kinds of capitalist are coming to visibility as never before during the pandemic.

Online platforms such as Uber, Taskrabbit and Childcare.co.uk (all founded in 2009) have become such well-known household names that it is hard to remember they have only been around since the financial crisis. Others, such as Deliveroo, founded in 2013, are even more recent. Yet their growth has been phenomenal, changing both the labour market and how we manage our home lives: promising new means of earning extra money while also offering ways to save time.

Online platforms

With colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, I carried out research on the spread of these platforms in the UK. Two surveys, in 2016 and 2019, found significant numbers of people doing some work for online platforms (9.3% of the adult population in 2016 and 15.3% in 2019). But only a tiny proportion of these (0.4% in 2016 and 1.2% in 2019) were doing it as a full-time job. For the vast majority it was a way to top up income from other sources – in other words it was adding to the time spent doing paid work, leaving less time for other activities and thus contributing directly to the household time squeeze.

We looked in more detail at the people who were working most intensively for platforms and found that their numbers more than doubled over the three years between our surveys – from 4.7% in 2016 to 9.6% in 2019, while the numbers using such platforms also grew. I focus here on two kinds of platforms: those supplying taxi or delivery services (for example, Uber, Uber Eats, Just Eat and Deliveroo); and those supplying household services (cleaning platforms, such as Taskrabbit or Myhome.co.uk; care services, such as Childcare.co.uk or Curam; and household odd-job services such as Trustatrader or Mybuilder.com).

Our research results show the percentage of the adult working-age population in the UK working for these types of platform at least weekly, alongside the proportion who said they had used such platforms in the past year. The demand rose significantly over the three-year period – from 15.6% to 30.6% for taxi and delivery services and from 23.8% to 31.6% for household services. So, in May 2019, ten months before the pandemic hit, three out of ten working-age adults in the UK were already using each of these types of service. The growth in the numbers of people working regularly for these platforms was even more dramatic – with those cycling or driving on our streets delivering people or goods more than tripling from 1.6% to 5.2% and the proportion finding work in other people’s homes via online platforms more than doubling from 2.7% to 5.5% of the population. But what is most striking is the proportion of people doing both.

Workers and customers

Some might imagine that the precarious workers in the platform economy form part of a new underclass, catering to the needs of a more prosperous clientele. But what these results show is that the vast majority of platform workers are themselves customers for them. These are working class people working for other working-class people. Online platforms have cemented themselves into our daily lives both for topping up our incomes and meeting our domestic needs.  And during the pandemic their numbers have grown dramatically, with locked-down populations relying on essentials being brought to their doors by an ever-expanding army of people desperate for an income from casual work, risking their lives to deliver them.

Needing more money, people take on extra work but then find themselves with no time to cook, maintain their homes or care for their families and, exhausted, turn to platforms for ready meals and household or care services. A downward spiral is set up in which money poverty chases time poverty at an ever-accelerating pace, never quite catching up with itself – with capitalism taking a cut at both ends. The pandemic is increasing the rate of acceleration. But as with so many of the features of the pandemic, it is also increasing awareness of the problem. Let us hope that, in fighting for a better post-pandemic society, we can formulate demands that break this spiral, giving more rights to precarious workers while also reducing the pressures on domestic life.

Ursula Huws is professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire and author of Reinventing the Welfare State: Online Platforms and Public Policies (Pluto). This article originally appeared in Issue #231, published March 2021


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