How do we value the work we do in the home?

The way we currently measure our economies doesn’t incorporate the work that happens in the home.

We measure economies based on their GDP, which basically tries to add up the value of all the goods and services produced within a country by counting every time money changes hands in the economy. But because housework isn’t paid, it doesn’t get counted in GDP. So if you go out to eat in a restaurant rather than cook for yourself at home, GDP goes up, even though both options involve someone buying ingredients, cooking them, and being fed.

Some say ignoring domestic labor in the way we measure how successful our economies are is problematic because it undermines the value of the work that’s done in the home – on the assumption it’s not worth measuring because it isn’t measured by money.

Economists have come up with a few proposals for how to measure domestic labor, mainly using the replacement cost method.¹

This method basically measures how much it would cost to actually pay people to do what’s currently done for free in the home at current market rates. In other words, how much more would we have to spend if we did actually pay wages for housework?

There are a couple of problems and difficulties with this method. Firstly, market rates reflect the cost of a specialist – i.e. a professional plumber, cleaner, painter – who would probably be more productive at their job than the average unpaid domestic worker balancing loads of different tasks without specializing on a single one. To get around this, economists will slightly reduce market wages in their calculations to compensate for the lower quality of the labor (in the case study illustrated, for example, the rate was reduced by around 25%.)²

There’s also the question of whether we want to think of housework as ‘labor’. Most people might describe things like spending time with children, gardening, or redecorating homes as hobbies or leisure time, and would be uncomfortable with the idea of seeing these activities as work. So we may have to come up with a different way of placing value on housework, which allows domestic workers to get the support they need without necessarily monetizing their activities or treating them as any other job would be treated.³