ABS has no vital statistics on housework – for 10 years!

Gosh, I love a statistic. All journalists do. A statistical report where someone else has done all the research hard yards and you can just scoop the story off the top like a lovely dollop of interesting cream is the ultimate cruisy day at work for us.

And for all the mad efflorescence of opinion abroad in the world, there’s nothing quite like an interesting factoid to change the way you look at the world.

Go on: Go and have a roll around in the Australian Bureau of Statistics website. It’s fabulous; an Aladdin’s Cave of informative trinkets laboured over by a secret nerd-army of statisticians over the bureau’s noble 110-year history.

At first glimpse, it seems to cover every square inch of the Australian experience. Industrial disputes! Gross Value of Irrigated Land Production! Shipments of Wine and Brandy in Australia by Australian Winemakers and Importers! Causes Of Death! Attendance at Selected Cultural Venues and Events!

You can find out the place in Australia where men most outnumber women (East Pilbara) and where women most outnumber men (Deakin, ACT). You can find out just about anything you want about the way Australians work; how many work part time, how much they earn, whether they take sick leave or are union members or whether they drive to work or take a bus.

But do you know what the ABS doesn’t measure – and hasn’t for a decade now?


Yes, housework – that tedious backbone of the economy that doesn’t produce anything exciting and easily measurable like widgets or units of brandy or vehicle parts, but nonetheless provides a thundering multitude of valuable national assets like shirts that are not smelly, rubbish that is put out on the correct day and children who arrive at fancy dress birthday parties having remembered that it is fancy dress.

Housework is hard to track. Families don’t keep a record of it. Not in the formal statistical sense, I mean; tragically, the ABS is far too rigorous to accept the intricately detailed and closely-maintained LogBook of Recrimination that exists in the brains of many householders, stop me if I’m mistaken.

And, of course, we don’t do any of the things with housework that would make it more easily trackable, like pay for it. So it’s a hidden part of the economy.

In 1992, 1997 and 2006, the Australian Bureau of Statistics undertook what they called the Time Use Survey; a massive study where they compelled a large number of householders to fill out diaries accounting for every minute of their days. The questions were fantastically invasive. You couldn’t just scribble “child care”; you had to quantify what kind of child care you were doing. The bottom wiping kind? The making macaroni necklaces kind? The “checking emails while the kids hurt each other a little bit” kind?

Whenever you see estimates about the division of housework, these incredibly detailed studies (the US National Academy of Sciences called them “the Mercedes of time-use surveys” and that is rich geek-praise) are the source. It’s how we know, for instance, that mothers are more likely to do “inflexible” types of child care, like bathing, bedtime, drop-offs and pickups. And men are more likely to do the more flexible kind, like playtime, sports or reading books.

But the survey that was due in 2013 was cancelled by the ABS due to the Gillard Government’s public service efficiency dividend. It means that unpaid work in the home has – for 10 years now – not been counted at all.

“If you added up what this labour is worth, it amounts to about 40 per cent of GDP,” said the University of New South Wales’ Professor Lyn Craig, delivering her paper “Bad Timing” on Wednesday night.

Imagine – such a significant slice of human activity in this country, and we don’t have up to date information about who’s doing it and how, even though that data could inform some quite urgent questions in our society, like how we increase productivity, or balance work and family, or why superannuation tax concessions are skewed so heavily towards wealthy men. (Answer: because high-paid men tend to do little or no unpaid work).

Craig, who is something of a goddess in the realm of research on domestic work, is starved of information.

“Things that don’t get counted don’t count,” she warned. Too true.

The horrible truth is that we don’t respect domestic work enough even to monitor it properly. That’s an insult both to the people who have traditionally done most of it – women – and to the men who may well in the years since 2006 have been picking up after themselves more or doing more ironing. We don’t know, because we never asked. Even though we know everything there is to know about brandy production.



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