Class, childcare & housework in the recession

// 23 March 2009

The New York Times ran an op-ed last week, which makes a couple of obvious but important points about how the gendered impact of the recession is covered in the media.

First off, the media concentration on the impact of the recession on the wealthiest people in society is a bit disgusting – in particular the tendancy to concentrate on the impact on straight, white, extremely wealthy nuclear families, you could add:

We — journalists and readers both — simply must, for once, resist the temptation to let what may or may not be happening to the top 5 percent (or 1 percent) of our country’s families set the story line for what women’s lives are becoming in this recession.

Because, the fact is, the story’s not about them.

“This is a classic blue collar recession,” says Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. Fully half the jobs that have been lost so far have been in construction and manufacturing. Only 5.1 percent of job losses have been in finance and insurance — the kinds of careers that support the opt-out lifestyle.

Boushey, who spends hours each week poring over labor statistics, says she sees “a guy with a lunch pail” in her mind when she thinks about this recession, not a yummy mummy resentfully suiting up to go back to work.

But the piece also addresses an underlying classist assumptions about how working class, straight families will be less progressive on gender roles in general:

The kind of marital tensions that we’re seeing in the downwardly mobile lifestyles of the rich and wretched, the family historian Stephanie Coontz told me this week, aren’t necessarily typical of couples further down the income scale, either. Wealthy families, she said, have tended, with their work-around-the-clock husbands and at-home wives, to have adopted a rather old-fashioned model of marriage, with fixed sex roles. They’ve set the tone, but the rest of the population hasn’t necessarily followed.

Increasing numbers of working class women now — in a downturn where 82 percent of the job losses have been among men – have become their family’s sole wage-earners, it’s true. But their husbands, very often, are holding their own at home just fine. For while the stereotype has long been that working class men won’t do “women’s work,” Coontz said, the truth is that in recent years they’ve had a better track record than the most high-income men in sharing domestic duties. Twenty percent of these men, in fact, actually do more housework and child care now than their wives. “These people have been doing it for some time and they’re much more ideologically committed to doing it,” she said. “I think your worst offenders” (dirty coffee mug-wise), “are in that top 5 percent.”

It’d be interesting to see a similar analysis done on how this plays out in the UK. Particularly given how different understandings and politics on class in the UK and the US. Also, there are all sorts of other not-necessarily-transferable things to consider, such as how the recession affects women specifically in the UK.

(Via Feminist Philosophers)

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