One economic perspective on the gendered division of labor is as a form of specialization. I’ll eventually get into those arguments in greater detail, but the basic idea is if each partner specializes in the things that they’re better at, this leads to greater efficiency—more done in less time.
There are a number of responses to this argument, but today I want to look at another argument for a division of labor: you don’t have to keep negotiating. If both partners—or all the roommates—are sometimes responsible for a task, then there will need to be regular conversations about who is doing a task this time. So now there’s a negotiation that needs to happen before the work can even start. Is this meta-work: work about work?
“Okay, so you’ll get the groceries this week, but first we’ll need to meal plan. Since you’re doing the grocery shopping I’ll clean the bathrooms. Are you cool with mowing the lawn?” And so forth.
So we see the benefit of having some kind of stable system. For all the problems with traditional gender roles, they hand people a ready-made division of labor that doesn’t have to be negotiated weekly or daily.
Of course, the power to negotiate is key, and we wouldn’t want to give it up. But I think the key is to not let ourselves get sucked into a never-ending negotiation that makes us miserable. (Some people probably prefer the flexibility of not having a system).
When I lived with four roommates while serving in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Washington, DC, we had a chore wheel. There were five key chores and they rotated every week. We also assigned nights to cook Sunday-Thursday.
My wife and I had a period of about 1.75 years during our time living in Portland where she was doing her residency and I was commuting to Salem for work. Since I was sick of spending so much time in the car, she would do the grocery shopping on Sunday (if she wasn’t working). While she was out I’d clean the floors, since this was easier to do without another person around, along with cleaning the bathroom and working on laundry.
In both cases, having a system was helpful.
But the downside of a division of labor can be when one person doesn’t know how to do a key task. What happens if the person who normally does that task isn’t able to do it for some reason?
This came up a lot when I worked in state government: realizing how bad it would be if one person got hit by a bus or won the lottery or took a different job. Some people like being the only person who knows how to do something because means they’re needed and gives them leverage and security. Personally, I think having someone who is able to be my backup means I won’t get phone calls when I’m on vacation, plus it’s just the sane thing to do in terms of making sure an organization works well.
This same logic applies to domestic labor. Even if one person usually does something, for many tasks it’s good to have someone else who knows how to do it. Some tasks are easier to hire out if needed (and if there’s enough money), like changing the oil or mowing the lawn. But others, like laundry and paying bills are essential and a household is less likely to be able to hire, or want to, them out.
I’ve been thinking about this in terms of paying our monthly credit card bills. It’s easier to have me just be the one to do it: it’s an quick task and this prevents us from having to discuss it every month and, especially, from each of us thinking the other one is going to do it. However, I need to make sure that my wife knows how to pay them, since I’m doing it electronically. So I’ll show her my system and also write down some directions. Just in case.