Valerie Ramey on Home Production and Childcare Time

Last year, Valerie Ramey summarized her findings on the changing way Americans have spent their time over the last century. The following section contains a lot of food for thought:

I find that time spent in home production by housewives fell by only a few hours between 1900 and 1965, confirming earlier results by sociologists. For all prime-age women, time spent in home production fell by only six hours per week from 1900 to 1965, but by an additional twelve hours between 1965 and 2005, with most of that decrease occurring between 1965 and 1975. These results are surprising because the main diffusion of appliances occurred before 1965, not after. Moreover, much of the decrease in time spent by women from 1900 to 2005 was countered by an increase in time spent by men.

Including all age groups, I find that average time spent in home production actually rose slightly over the century. The absence of a decline in the population overall was in part due to the decrease in the share of children (who do little home production), the increase in the share of the retired elderly (who do more home production than the employed), and the loss of economies of scale as households got smaller.

Interestingly, time spent in home production by prime-age individuals did not decrease after the mid-1970s, although the composition of tasks changed significantly. In particular, as Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst demonstrate, time spent on such activities as cooking and laundry decreased steadily, while time spent on childcare increased. Garey Ramey and I document and assess possible explanations for the dramatic rise in childcare time in the United States beginning in the 1990s. We find that the largest increases in childcare time were among college-educated parents, although less educated parents also showed an increase. We test numerous possible explanations, such as safety concerns, income effects, and sample selection, but find that all are inconsistent with the data. We then offer a new theory linking at least part of the increase in childcare time to “cohort crowding” and the increase in competition to get into college. We argue that a significant portion of the increase in childcare time is parents trying to improve their children’s chances of getting into a “good” college by tutoring them and building up their after-school resumes. As one test of the theory, we turn to Canada, where there is no steep hierarchy of universities and where college admissions are less competitive. Using individual-level data from Canadian time- use studies, we show that time spent on childcare did not increase among college-educated parents in Canada over the past twenty years. [Emphasis added]

This is absolutely fascinating. As the higher education market is globalized, one wonders if this will change, i.e., perhaps affluent non-Americans will devote more time to childcare in order to improve the college admissions prospects of their children. Or perhaps the advent of open-access programs like MITx will dampen positional competition for access to elite educational institutions, thus leading affluent U.S. parents to move in a Canadian direction. 

To the extent that the Thiel Fellows program represents at attempt to attack the prestige of elite higher education, it might actually represent a huge windfall for upper-middle-class parents of the future, who might devote less time to tutoring their children and building up their after-school resumes.

And what might these upper-middle-class parents of the future do with their time instead? Much depends on our assumptions regarding the intensive and extensive margin and the future tax rate. Some might choose to engage in more market production. Others might devote themselves to charitable endeavors, participatory culture, etc. Recall Clay Shirky’s observations concerning the “cognitive surplus“:

So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we’re still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there’s an interesting community over here, there’s an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can’t predict the outputs yet because there’s so much complexity.

Dampening the college obsession could yield an enormous cognitive surplus. As Shirky suggests, it is very difficult to tell how this cognitive surplus (which, to be clear, hasn’t materialized yet and might never materialize) would be deployed in practice.

One possibility, to draw on the Robert Fogel “Fourth Great Awakening” thesis, is that we will see a revival of civil society as traditional welfare state institutions encounter insurmountable structural challenges. 

Another possibility is that upper-middle-class parents will use this cognitive surplus to spend more time playing challenging, highly immersive video games. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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