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How to Disrupt Housework (Without Robots or Replicators)
How would dramatically reducing the house and life work you're responsible for change the kinds of work you do?
This is the 5th installment in Strange New Work, a series exploring how speculative fiction can help us imagine a radically different future of work.
Read or listen to the full series here.
Housework is rarely the territory of popular space cowboy science fiction.
When housework is depicted, it’s usually brushed off as work for androids or other specialized, high-tech robots.
See Rosie the Robot.
See also Wall-E.
See also "replicators" as food production in Star Trek.
The unwaged work we do at home—cleaning, preparing meals, childrearing, etc.—impacts the waged work we do in a host of ways. Today, we’ll explore how both post-work theorists and speculative fiction authors imagine how we could restructure domestic and reproductive labor to give us all more choice over how we spend our time.
In 1984—the year, not the book—the United States issued a patent to Frances Gabe for the design of a self-cleaning house. She designed the house to offer seniors and disabled people the opportunity to live independently.
The house couldn’t tidy up or scrub dirty dishes. Instead, the system Gabe designed was meant to refresh an already tidy house.
At the push of a few buttons, the house would spray a fine mist of cleaning product over its interior. Gabe also invented waterproof cases for bookshelves, furniture, and other household items that needed a bit of protection.
Gabe’s patent wasn’t mere speculation. Years before she filed for and received it, she built a prototype on her property in Oregon. Twice a year, she let the house do its thing—a small nod to a future with less housework.
Frances Gabe’s invention, much like household labor-saving devices in The Jetsons and Back to the Future, typifies the way we think about the future of housework. The future looks strangely like the middle-class suburban present—individual homes for small nuclear families who just happen to go about their days without worrying about vacuuming or doing laundry.
Helen Hester and Nick Srincek, authors of After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time, call this domestic realism.1 Domestic realism is the phenomenon that's turned the isolated, individual home and its corresponding isolated, individual labor into something "so accepted and commonplace that it is almost impossible to imagine life being organised through any other form."
Domestic realism isn’t just a lack of imagination. It’s an enduring and self-correcting system that serves to reinforce “a particular configuration of values around hard work, busyness, individualism, self-reliance, and family structure.” The suburban home, as an ideal of American upward mobility, serves to atomize communities so that collective care and shared resources become nearly impossible.
We call this freedom.
Freedom is living in a home you own, literally detached from the people around you. Freedom is having the stuff you want within those four walls. Freedom is a car or truck you can drive where you want when you want. Freedom is the right to define yourself with your property.
But it's a sorry sort of freedom when our homes, our stuff, and our vehicles—among many other trappings of middle-class life—severely limit how we spend our time and where we put our energy. Home life is inextricably connected to work life. And the promise or potential of a certain type of home life convinces us to accept a raw deal when it comes to our work lives.
Our activity is funneled into a prescribed set of ideal purchases, careers, and family structures in a way that significantly reduces real free time. Living in a home you own is considerably more work than living in an apartment you rent. Both have downsides, to be sure, but one provides some economy of scale in terms of maintenance—and the other hoists it all on your shoulders.
Post-work theorists call this the "double unfreedom" of wage labor. Not only is our waged time subject to our employers' whims (or, for independent workers, the whims of the market), but our non-waged time is spent on domestic and reproductive labor as dictated by cultural norms. In After Work, Hester and Srincek consider how we could lessen the burden of domestic and reproductive labor without sacrificing the quality of care and social relations.
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One of the species that Chambers imagines is the Aeluons. The Aeluons have a distinct reproductive challenge: female Aeluons only become fertile two or three times in their lifetimes. There is no predictable cycle, no way of planning for a pregnancy. So, over time, the Aeluon culture developed social structures based on this biological reality. Instead of nuclear or multigenerational families, they establish dedicated creches—that is, parenting and educational groups that raise up biologically unrelated children.
In the second book of the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, we learn about how the system works. "Traditionally," explains Chambers, "creches were comprised of three to five virile males or shons,2 but women and neutrals were included in the modern mix." This setup allowed male or shon Aeluons to choose parent as a career.
"Parenting was considered a full-time job," continues Chambers, "and not something to be undertaken alone. As a woman had no way to plan for it and when she might become fertile, the idea of her abandoning her own profession to look after an unplanned child was unthinkable."
The Aeluons who do choose to become career parents go through rigorous education to become qualified. Explaining the process to the story's protagonist, an Aeluon parent puts it like this:
‘At the core, you’ve got to get university certification for parenting, just as you do for, say, being a doctor or an engineer. No offence to you or your species, but going into the business of creating life without any sort of formal prep is…’ ... ‘It’s baffling. But then, I’m biased.’
The coursework includes "child development, basic medical care, and interpersonal communication." The Aeluon man adds that to attract mothers to their services and to benefit the kids in their care, Aeluons on the parenting track also add in extra specializations. He says that he has specializations in massage, tutoring, and emotional counseling. Other parents in his creche specialize in arts and crafts, cooking, home repair, and gardening.
As for the mothers? Well, they call and visit from time to time—but it's the professional parents who do the childrearing and guide the creches. The career parent explains, "Aeluon mothers love their children as deeply as anyone does. That’s why they entrust them to professionals who can give them the best upbringing possible."
The way Chambers lays it all out seems so sensible—even as the system subverts the assumptions of anyone who grew up in a culture that reveres the nuclear family.
The creche model is one that appears over and over again in speculative fiction.
In China Miéville's Embassytown, we see a similar social system among humans. The children live in nurseries staffed by multiple "shiftparents" of any gender. They refer to the kids they grow up with as "shiftsiblings." The biological parents of any of the kids might visit from time to time—but it's the shiftparents that the kids develop close relationships with.
In Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightening, Earth culture comes up with a revolutionary system in the 22nd century. It grows out of a project that aims to find and perfect "great minds," but when one has an insight that conflicts with her mentor's plan, she defects. She declares:
“Sir, you are wrong ... It’s not the numbers, not these rare psyches you’re charting that stimulate great progress. It’s groups. I’ve studied the same inventors, authors, leaders that you have, and the thing that most reliably produces many at once—the effect you’ve worked so hard to replicate—is when people abandon the nuclear family to live in a collective household, four to twenty friends, rearing children and ideas together in a haven of mutual discourse and play. We don’t need to revolutionize the kindergartens, we need to revolutionize the family.”
Instead of continuing with the original project, she starts her own—forming bash'houses, in which children grow up with bash'parents and bash'sibs before choosing their own bash' in adulthood.3
Similarly, Earth's governmental systems transform, too. The nation-states dissolve and, in their place, the global society develops a system of Hives. A Hive is a diffuse, non-geographical governmental system that you join when you become an adult, putting yourself in its jurisdiction and declaring alignment with its values. So, neither the home unit nor the state unit is a matter of birth. Intentional choice reshapes the political landscape.
These reimagined forms of family and home life may sound odd. But they're only odd in relation to the kind of family that's developed under American capitalism over the last century.
I think that idea of a heterosexual monogamous couple raising their own biological offspring through biparental care in a single-family home surrounded by their own private stuff is really a unique family form.
And as you said, it’s an aberration. We can look across the world. And we can look cross-culturally and transhistorically, and what we can see is that human family forms show a remarkable amount of diversity, depending on climactic, geographic, economic, political, and social circumstances.
She went on to say that humans' ability to shift the way we form social units and raise children depending on our environment and needs is part of what makes humans "so incredibly adaptive." Our access to resources, the needs of the community, and the political system we live within contribute to the norms that develop around the idea of family.
The dominance of the nuclear family structure in America is contingent on certain social, political, and economic circumstances. And those circumstances are changing.
When I spoke with sociologist and political economist Mauro Guillén about his book The Perennials, he told me about some pretty staggering demographic shifts. In the 1970s, 45% of American households were nuclear families. “So that’s two parents, one or more kids, one dog, one refrigerator, one washing machine, one dog or cat, and one car,” he explained with a chuckle.
But today? Well, less than 20% of American households are nuclear families. Guillén told me that the growth of LGBTQ families (of all types) and single-parent families accounts for some of this shift. Another key shift is the growth of multi-generational households. In the US, it used to be that less than 5% of people lived in multi-generational households. Today, it could be as high as 15% of the US population.
When more people live in a home, more people can help out.
That's not to say it's an inevitability, of course! But the potential is there. Many tasks really do provide leverage. There might be more laundry, but you can probably fit more clothes in a load. More food needs to be prepared at dinner time, but cooking for 6 isn't more work than cooking for 3—it's just more food. The lawn still needs to be mowed—but it's still just one lawn. The home still needs to be repaired, but there are often more earners to chip in.
Pooling resources and labor in this way was once the norm. We've been living together far longer than we've been living apart.
Things started to change with the industrial revolution. Still, it took a couple of centuries to transform our social organization and turn work that was once done collectively into the purview of the housewife.
Before the idealization of the nuclear family and the rise of compulsory education, families did domestic labor together—and with the help of extended family and neighbors. Those who were more well-off employed domestic servants who did the work collectively (if not equitability, as Hester and Srincek point out). At the turn of the 20th century, the domestic service industry was Britain's largest employer and employed 1.5 million people—14% of the total workforce.
But Hester and Srincek explain that the rapid development of technology, along with a concerted effort to market "modern conveniences," "facilitated (and responded to) the increasing individualisation of this workload throughout the nineteenth century—placing it in the hands of the lone housewife." At the same time, children were going off to private and public schools and couldn't help out. Men were, often for the first time, leaving the home for waged work and assuming their roles as breadwinners.
In the United States, this shift reached a fever pitch after World War II, as concerted efforts to build and populate suburbs became a core part of the American experiment—as well as a defense against accepting a multicultural society. The geography, political economy, technology, and labor opportunities at this time converged to create circumstances whereby the chores of daily life were no longer "coordinated collective efforts" but the responsibility of a "single unwaged worker." No amount of technology could make up for the fact that the housewife now bore the brunt of reproductive and domestic labor, alone and isolated from support.
Over the last 80 years, of course, women entered the paid workforce in droves, and some inroads were made toward gender parity in domestic labor. But the atomization of our efforts remains a stubborn sticking point. To actually reduce the burden of domestic and reproductive labor, we need to fundamentally change the work that needs to be done.
In the third book of Becky Chambers's Wayfarers series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, Chambers imagines how the humans who fled Earth as part of the Exodus fleet now live. The shipbuilders devised a system whereby a family would live together in a home of six bedrooms plus a central common room. In the fleet, a family could be related by blood or other kinship, or they might be individual unrelated adults living together.
The family home is part of a 6-home group called a hex. At the center of the hex is another common area. Six hexes make up a hub, like a neighborhood, and within the hub, there are the shops and services necessary for daily living. A hex isn't strictly communal—but much more communal than, say, the average apartment building today. Hexmates look after each other's children, take turns preparing meals, and generally look out for the shared welfare of the larger group.
In the Exodus fleet, one of the most foundational ideas is that "everybody has a home, and nobody goes hungry." Hexes are part of the mutual care network that ensures the fleet can always keep that promise. So is the notion of work on a ship. An alien ethnographer documenting life on a fleet ship observes:
A job is partly a matter of personal fulfilment, yes, but also—and perhaps chiefly—social fulfilment. When an Exodan asks 'what do you do?', the real question is: 'What do you do for us?'
This attitude toward work of all kinds helps to acknowledge the ways care, maintenance, and sanitation exist in the same category as other forms of labor. Taking care of one another is a job—and there are jobs for taking care of one another. In a social ecosystem where everyone's needs are met as a matter of course, the focus of work can be on helping to meet everyone's needs rather than either trying to get ahead or scrounging around for enough to get by.
The world Chambers builds in the Exodus fleet sounds a lot like the world Helen Hester and Nick Scrincek propose at the end of After Work.
At the end of After Work, Hester and Srincek propose three principles for establishing a world in which we can flourish. Those principles are communal care, public luxury, and temporal sovereignty. I want to focus on public luxury as it relates to waged work. But I'll give you the 411 on communal care and temporal sovereignty before I do.
Communal care pushes back on the idea that the nuclear family is the best environment for a child to grow up in or for adults to thrive in. Hester and Srincek write, "The family is often idealised as a safe space, a harbour in a hostile world – but for millions of people it is far from that." Their proposals for communal care aren't state-directed nor do they rely on coercive top-down power.
Instead, their idea of communal care relies on activating our innate impulse to take care of each other. And to do that, we need to remove the many policy barriers that stand in the way of organizing chosen families and household arrangements. For instance, zoning laws that prevent people unrelated by blood, marriage, or adoption from living together are quite common, making it impossible to live communally in many municipalities. And nearly ubiquitous zoning laws banning the development of multi-unit buildings are a big part of today's housing crisis.
By expanding choice vis a vis the family and living situations, we can find new points of leverage around reproductive and domestic work—often improving the quality of care available at the same time.
A more free future must include the choice of how we spend our time. The welfare-to-work system notwithstanding, no one in the United States is being told by the state how they must spend their time. But the conditions the state supports through policy, in effect, do. To be able to quote-unquote enjoy the most basic things like food and shelter, most of us must work full time. Because so many jobs don't pay a living wage to full-time workers, many people must work additional jobs to survive.
By not intervening in the conditions of contemporary work and needs-meeting, the state does indeed exercise a de facto mandate over how we spend our time. The principle of temporal sovereignty is broadly revolutionary—but even small policy changes such as establishing a minimum living wage, creating less onerous standards for disability income, and guaranteeing housing would go a long way to giving people more control over their time.
And that leads us to public luxury. I wanted to focus on this idea because it's so ubiquitous in speculative fiction. Obviously, there are huge subgenres of dystopias and off-the-rails pay-to-play societies. But there are also nonchalant displays of public luxury throughout the Star Trek universe, as well as in most of the stories I've mentioned in Strange New Work thus far. And even in the more dystopic stories, there is often a struggle for some component of public luxury at the center.
But let me back up: What the hell is public luxury?
Public luxury doesn't mean everyone lives in mansions, buys whatever stuff they want to buy, and enjoys first class airfare to the far corners of the world. Instead, public luxury is a vision of a simpler private life with access to a wealth of resources we couldn't dream of having on our own. Hester and Srincek propose that public luxury be imagined through the lens of "quality rather than exclusivity." So, instead of imagining luxury as a matter of the lifestyle that very few people can afford, we start to consider luxury a matter of the best everyone can have access to.
Public luxury can look like caring for the environment and ensuring that every community has access to ample green space. It can look like accommodation for shared child-rearing. Public luxury might include ample funding for the arts so that our public spaces are full of art unimpeded by commercial concerns. We could have libraries, not only for books, but for tools, bicycles, and 3D printers. We could build more public swimming pools, playgrounds, and activity centers.
And we could focus on the quality of these accommodations so that the "public" option is no longer associated with the option of last resort.
In Becky Chambers' Monk and Robot novellas, the character Dex is a tea monk whose job it is to travel from community to community offering tea and comfort to those who need it. There is no cost for this service, not even a recommended donation. The economy Chambers imagines doesn't even have money.
Dex rolls up in their instantly recognizable bicycle-powered tea wagon, and then sets to work preparing a place for people to come and use their services. Here's how Chambers describes the next step:
At last, Dex sat in their chair behind the larger table. They pulled their pocket computer from their baggy travel trousers and flicked the screen awake. It was a good computer, given to them on their sixteenth birthday, a customary coming-of-age gift. It had a cream-colored frame and a pleasingly crisp screen, and Dex had only needed to repair it five times in the years that it had traveled in their clothes. A reliable device built to last a lifetime, as all computers were. Dex tapped the icon shaped like a handshake, and the computer beeped cheerily, letting them know the message had been sent. That was Dex’s cue to sit back and wait. Every person in Inkthorn who had previously told their own pocket computers they wanted to know when new wagons arrived now knew exactly that. In comic synchrony, everybody in the crowd pulled out their computers within seconds of Dex’s tap, silencing the chorus of alerts. Dex laughed, and the crowd laughed, and Dex waved them over. ... And so they worked through the line, filling mugs and listening carefully and blending herbs on the fly when the situation called for it. The mat was soon full of people. Pleasant chatter naturally drifted along here and there, but most folks kept to themselves. Some read books on their computers. Some slept. A few cried, which was normal. Their fellow tea-drinkers offered shoulders for this; Dex provided handkerchiefs and refills as needed.
That's public luxury. It springs from asking, "How can we make life better for each other?" rather than, "How can I make my life and my family's lives better?"
Public luxury liberates our needs and desires from the constraints of profit-oriented market relations.
It changes the calculus on how we spend our time and how we care for each other.
Public luxury revolutionizes not only how we think about domestic and reproductive labor, but it revolutionizes how we think about all forms of labor. It also revolutionizes how we think about the family and how we form the groups we live with.
Abolish (and Expand) the Family
In the 19th century, revolutionaries identified "the family" as an institution that reinforced class hierarchy and capitalist exploitation. Some called for abolishing the family. And to this day, it's one of the reactionary Right's favorite ways to discount progressive ideas.
Marx and Engels describe the bourgeois family as an insular project bent on reproducing the status quo through precise standards of property, education, and morality. Bourgeois families are tasked with producing the next generation of bourgeois families.
This echoes the contemporary phenomenon of "concerted cultivation," so named by sociologist Annette Lareau. Concerted cultivation is a style of parenting that is no doubt quite familiar to many readers of this newsletter. It's the optimization of naptime, playtime, school time, and extracurricular time to create a product, I mean, a human being fit for the marketplace. And asnotes, "Millennials became the first generation to fully conceptualize themselves as walking college resumes." An idea, I can assure you, is alive and well with Gen Z, too.
But not every family has the resources to concertedly cultivate children who can graduate without student loans, network their way into a high-paying first job, or wait out a tepid job market. Try as many might, many of the best and brightest from the tuition-borrowing class end up in retail, food service, and hospitality jobs. The promise of self-actualization and upward mobility slipping away with every meager paycheck.
Or, as Marx and Engels put it:
The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more—by the action of Modern Industry—all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.
Expanding the idea of family and transforming domestic labor through communal care, temporal sovereignty, and public luxury promises to revolutionize work of all kinds. These changes, of course, would threaten the very mechanisms of control that capital wields as the weapons of the status quo.
How we live affects how we work.
And how we work affects how we live.
The home and the neighborhood, as well as the factory floor or office building, can be wellsprings of social innovation that change the calculus of what we do, what we get paid, and how we organize ourselves. We must see both how we live and how we work as a system that requires creative change if we're to imagine a world more conducive to human thriving and interconnectedness.
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Domestic realism is a nod to Mark Fisher’s term capitalist realism, which I discussed at length here.
"Shons changed reproductive function multiple times throughout a standard [year], and were always considered fully male or female, depending on the current situation. Calling a shon by a neutral pronoun was considered an insult, unless they were in the middle of a shift." — A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers