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Housework inequality: Should men do more or should we all do less?

Housework's becoming a hot-button issue, with competing surveys and differing views about the division of labor.
Housework's becoming a hot-button issue, with competing surveys and differing views about the division of labor.

Housework is becoming a hot-button issue, with surveys and differing views about the division of labor around the house. One camp says men should step up, another that everyone should slow down.

Everyone agrees that women outperform men significantly overall when it comes to housework, though men have increased the amount of time they spend on other chores that used to fall primarily to women, such as child care.

By the way, it turns out housework may not actually count as exercise after all.

This week's public debate was kicked off by an article in The New York Times opinion section. "Unlike many other rubrics by which you can establish the balance of power between men and women, there isn’t much evidence of a cohort shift in housework. Younger men are doing roughly the same amount of work around the house as their fathers did. It doesn’t look like they’re going to start doing more, either," writes a contributing editor to Esquire, Stephen Marche.

He cites a cross-national study Ohio State did that assessed what's changed since the mid-1980s in America, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. And he says that although women are 40 percent of the country's main or only wage earners for families with minor children (four times the figure from 1960), men haven't really changed how much housework they do — or don't — in 30 years.

He concludes that men probably aren't going to change their habits, but there's still a way to resolve it: "The only possible solution to the housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it," he writes.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic thinks men could actually do a bit more. "This is the third article I've read on the subject of men and housework, after Jon Chait (asking women to embrace the dust) and Jessica Grose (asking men to embrace the duster)," he writes. "Without trying to sound like a cop out, I'll just say that I have no idea how all 120 million married couples should divide their responsibilities."

Still, he noted, there are a few facts that matter: "There's less and less housework to do. … Men do more of it than they used to. … But women still do most of it."

While men do more, he adds, the pendulum "stopped mid-swing. Dads do less housework today than they did in the 1980s. Moms and dads (especially the affluent) spend more time with their children now and less time cleaning up, possibly because breakthroughs from Whirlpool, Swiffer, and other home-tech companies have made chore-time more efficient. (Indeed, the whole debate would go away if robots just cleaned our homes for us.)"

Thompson's not discounting the benefits of lowering the bar in terms of housework standards just a bit. But he's not letting guys off the hook entirely, either. "But maybe, now that women are out-earning us in bachelor's degrees and (often) in marriages as well, we could stand to do oh-just-slightly more than 35 percent of the dishes," Thompson concludes.

As for that exercise question, Livescience reports on a study out of Northern Ireland that people who count housework as exercise may actually be heavier. It's possible that people overestimate how many calories they burn doing housework and eat more.

"Researchers surveyed nearly 5,000 people and found that domestic physical activity accounted for more than 35 percent of moderate intensity exercise. And the more time people spent doing housework, the more their weight went up. How come? The researchers speculate that heavier people may perceive their around-the-house duties to be more intense. Chores often tax smaller muscle groups, which causes more perceived exertion with less of a boost to your metabolism. In other words, if your shoulder muscles are sore after vacuuming, you might feel like you got a better workout than you really did," writes Kelsey Cannon in Men'sHealth of the study.

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