For one year now so many people have spent so much time at home that we can no longer deny that housing inequalities and problems have an impact on health and work. We can no longer ignore that what happens in the home, within households, is as much a part of the economy as what goes on in factories and offices.
Today I’d like to write about the home as the central place where the future of work is made. I’ve just finished reading Diana Lind’s remarkable Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing. I’ve even scheduled an interview with her! (I’ll keep you posted) In the meantime, I’ve borrowed the wonderful title of her book for this newsletter.
In Brave New Home, Diana Lind argues that the ‘American Dream’-like single-family home so typical of the 20th-century has become “a lonely, overpriced nightmare”. Nuclear families are no longer the norm but housing hasn’t caught up with changing social norms and demographics. We need bolder housing policies and more options to solve the biggest problems of our times (climate change and loneliness).
I loved reading Brave New Home. Although the book is centred on the US, a lot of it can resonate with Europeans too. And it got me thinking some more on the intersection between the future of housing and the future of work 💡👇
The historic separation between home and work
For thousands of years, as a general rule, most humans lived where they worked (and vice versa). For a vast majority of peasants, craftsmen, serfs and even daily labourers work and home weren’t really separated. It remained true for craftsmen, family businesses and ‘mom-and-pop’ store owners but as a rule we started to think of work and home as two separate things after the industrial revolution.
The separation of home and work came with a separation between female and male work. Reproductive work (which consists in reproducing the workforce of the present and the future, i.e. feeding, clothing, caring, raising children, and all that) was assigned to women in the home. Meanwhile productive work (everything else) was progressively organised for men in separate spaces (among which factories).
Productive work was paid while reproductive work wasn’t. It was said that the revenues generated by productive workers should cover the work of unpaid reproductive workers. The result was that we started looking at reproductive work as something that doesn’t count (unpaid reproductive work is not counted in the GDP). It also meant reproductive workers were necessarily dependent.
Even after the industrial revolution, the idea that the home was for reproduction only while production happened outside the home was never quite true. It was always more complicated than that. There was production in the home. The putting-out system (work contracted to subcontractors working from home) went on for a long time. And there were still lots of farmers, craftsmen and family businesses too.
Also there were domestic workers (overwhelmingly women) who worked for other households than their own, challenging the notion that reproductive work was all unpaid. The separation of home and work may never have been completely true, but it shaped our vision of work and the institutions we created to support it. For example the US Social Security excluded domestic workers from its protections.
The home is making a huge comeback these days
True, it isn’t really a ‘comeback’ if it was always a place of work. But as I said we entertained that fiction that the home wasn’t a place of work. Therefore no work that occurred in the home was really taken seriously. Not the work of artists (there are too few of them anyway). And not the work of domestic workers like nannies, social workers or cleaning women that looks so much like unpaid work.
Four things happened during the pandemic that challenged the fiction in unprecedented ways. Suddenly questions can be asked that weren’t asked before. And they come with new opportunities. Shouldn’t domestic workers be protected? Should housing be a universal right? Is the household not an economic entity? Is reproductive work not also essential work? Does working from home call for new institutions?
The new work-from-home situation: almost overnight when the first lockdown started the number of hours worked from home was multiplied by 10 or more. Roughly 40% of all jobs in the UK (and in most of Europe) moved from the office to the home. At the beginning neither workers nor their managers were prepared for this, but the move was made anyway. Surprisingly the many obstacles that used to be highlighted were all overcome. It is clear now that there is no going back. Most workers won’t want to return to the office full time, from 9 to 5 every day. Companies discovered they could get by with smaller offices and save quite a lot of money.
The Shecession as a home crisis: after a few weeks of pandemic, as schools and childcare facilities were closed and so many people were cooped up inside their home, it became clear that the economic crisis was hitting women disproportionately. Many women lost their jobs in proximity services. And others had to leave (or pause) their jobs to look after a child at home. The gender gap is expected to widen as a result. What the Shecession made so visible is that the work of many women is dependent on reproductive workers (nannies, cleaners, social workers and the like). When all of the reproductive work is re-internalised inside the home, it’s a disaster for a lot of women. The home becomes the place of unpaid work and economic dependency.
Housing as a matter of life and death. During this pandemic housing inequalities could literally be measured in deaths and economic despair. Poor housing conditions can never be said to be acceptable, but in pandemic times, these inequalities become a visible disaster. Those workers who don’t work from home often also live in substandard homes. They are thus doubly exposed (in some areas the death rate has been 10 times as high as in others). And among those who do work from home, substandard housing conditions become all the more unbearable.
The mental health crisis. Stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression are nothing new. They’ve been on the rise for decades. But the social distancing imposed by the pandemic increased the mental health crisis in unprecedented ways. It led more people to challenge the unbearable loneliness that comes with a “normal” home. Many people moved in with their parents (or children). Others opted for a form of “co-living” situation. Multigenerational homes and seemingly utopian co-living options now seem more desirable. The pandemic just accelerated our awareness of the problem.
Designing homes only for nuclear families is a disaster for gender equality
The nuclear family is a trap. Homes made for nuclear families are a trap. They were designed for a family model where one person (generally a woman) had to stay at home so the other members of the household could be free to work (or study) outside. But this model is still largely seen as dominant (in media and politics). Real-estate developers and policy makers seem to believe the nuclear family remains more important than it actually is.
In truth the nuclear family model is now in the minority. Between one in four and one in three households are composed of single individuals. Others are single-parent families. Many households are composed of multiple generations. Many more people feel free to live in same-sex households. In the US and Europe, a majority of young adults live with their parents. If only housing evolved as fast as culture and demographics! That’s the main message in Diana Lind’s book:
Over the past several decades, American demographics and social norms have shifted dramatically. More people are living alone, marrying later in life, and having smaller families while their lifestyles have also become more virtual, more mobile, and less stable. But despite a different and more diverse America, our housing is still stuck in the 1950s.
This style of living, centered around the single-family home, is a relatively new concept in the history of humankind. Up until World War II, families traditionally lived in more communal situations, ranging from multigenerational households to close-knit neighborhoods full of friends and family. (...)
The more I searched these issues, the more I became convinced that the presumed benefits of single-family homes masked their negative social, economic, and environmental consequences. The data suggest that the current housing paradigm—predominantly oriented around owning a single-family home—is unaffordable, unhealthy, and out of step with consumer demand. And a large and growing portion of the population is unable to access the homeownership lifestyle, even if they desire it.
For decades home ownership was encouraged. But today’s higher rates of home ownership prevent mobility, which makes it harder for workers to pursue new opportunities. Housing designed for the nuclear family doesn't make life easy for female workers. All this became so clear during the pandemic that I read numerous rants against the nuclear family, like this one in The Atlantic by David Brooks, titled “The nuclear family was a mistake”.
This is the story of our times—the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.
If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.
Happier housing for a better future of work
A lot of the things that can make our future of work better depend on “happier housing”. Multigenerational households can alleviate the burden of working mothers (and fathers). Co-living can reduce the loneliness of people living and working alone. It can also make a lot of new services more accessible, which in turn can help create new jobs in proximity services (cleaning, teaching yoga, cooking). So the “smarter, simpler, happier housing” advocated by Diana Lind, in particular the end of single-family zoning to make the construction of ADUs (accessory dwelling units) easier, all make perfect sense when you look at them through the future-of-work lens.
In just one year we’ve seen all the housing problems but we’ve also seen new solutions emerge. Construction and policies may be slow to change, but a lot of new trends have accelerated anyway, and they offer positive opportunities for workers:
There’s some geographic redistribution of workers thanks to the remote work revolution. It could make housing a bit more affordable in expensive cities and spread the wealth (a bit). As Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic, “Superstar Cities Are in Trouble”. There will be new “supercommuters” in the future: “Today, the term supercommuting is often used to describe the punishment inflicted on lower-income workers who have to live far from their job because of the scarcity of affordable housing. But the remote-work revolution could spawn the rise of something a little different: the affluent supercommuter who chooses to move to a big exurban house with the expectation that she’ll make fewer, longer commutes to the office.” The relative decline of the coastal superstar cities could make it somewhat easier for low-paid workers who still work in them.
Those working from home are making their home into a place of work. Whether that means moving into a place that’s further from the city centre so as to have more space, or building a shed in the garden, or just buying a better chair and a desktop computer, a lot of the workers who suffered from poor ergonomics in the first months of working from home have made significant investments to improve their work-from-home situation. A room of one’s own is essential to creative work and many workers made changes to their home to make room for creative work. Given the significance of these changes, these workers obviously don’t expect to go back to 9-to-5 office work.
When it comes to homes, more people are challenging the norm. The solitude of students and single workers was unbearable during lockdown. So was the burden of parents dealing with work and young children at home. Co-living and co-working are now regarded as part of the same trend. And multigenerational homes are increasingly seen as a solution, with retired parents providing the childcare that’s missing, thus enabling paid work. More people seek flexible housing so as to remain mobile. More workers (freelancers) with irregular revenues have to find alternatives because traditional housing isn’t accessible to them. There are so many good reasons to challenge the housing norm!
It is essential that we start looking at the home as a place of production. Everyone needs to understand that the future of housing and the future of work are intertwined. If we understand that then we’ll be able to create new institutions to support workers.
Here are a few examples of such institutions: unions that cater to the needs of domestic workers, employee/employer negotiations that address the costs of working from home, a tax system that takes domestic work into account, new incentives to enable a better distribution of unpaid domestic work within households, free, universal child care to empower women inside and outside the home, new forms of communal housing that can help groups of people mutualise services (healthcare, cleaning, cooking) that will create new jobs in proximity services...
🚀 For Nouveau Départ we’ve recorded new podcasts, among which: Elle a quitté son Comex pour une startup, Travail et commerce se transforment de concert, Pandémie : les défis de l'école, Comment réinventer notre contrat social ?, Jeff Bezos : sa vie, son oeuvre … Subscribe to Nouveau Départ!
👩💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote a few more articles: Has the Covid crisis benefited “gorilla” leaders?, Pourquoi tant de femmes brillantes quittent les entreprises, Existe-t-il vraiment une vie privée au travail ?, Ce que #balancetastartup rappelle de la marque employeur…
📺 The future of work webinar with NEXT is today! (February 18 in 🇬🇧): “When it comes to the future of work, the current crisis amplifies and accelerates opportunities and threats long in the making. It is accelerating the transition between the old and the new economic paradigms.”Join us live at 12:30 pm CET!
🎙️ There’s a new Building Bridges podcast to listen to! 🇬🇧 A European in Silicon Valley with Toni Cowan-Brown (also on Apple Podcasts) 🎧 Subscribe to Building Bridges if you want to receive the next one in your mailbox.
🌆 The Pandemic Emptied Europe’s Cities. What Will Bring People Back?, Megan Specia, The New York Times, February 2021: “many European cities are introducing features like pedestrian and cycle-friendly commuting options and expanded green spaces. Milan, hit hard by the first wave of the virus, has designated more than 20 miles of cycling lanes as well as “parklets” in former parking lots. London officials began a “Streetspace” project last year, creating temporary bike lanes and widening pedestrian zones as commuters tried to avoid the dangers of crowded subways and buses. Paris and Barcelona have taken similar steps.”
🧘♂️ UK's first yoga union fights for fairer share of £900m-a-year industry, Robert Booth, The Guardian, February 2021: “as the business of lotus poses and sun salutations hits £900m a year in Britain alone, some have decided they want a fairer share. The UK’s first trade union for yoga teachers has been established with a warning that despite the “chai latte” image of their practice, many endure poverty wages. In the footsteps of gig economy colleagues such as Uber drivers and takeaway couriers who have gone to the courts to campaign for improved terms, a new branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain is appealing to the UK’s estimated 10,000 yoga teachers to sign up. It is not, the group insists, “unyogic” to demand better pay.”
🤡 How to Be Funny at Work, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, Harvard Business Review, February 2021: “A lot of humor’s power is chemical. When we laugh, our brains produce less cortisol (inducing calm and reducing stress) and release more endorphins (which give us something like a runner’s high) and oxytocin (often called the “love” hormone). It’s like meditating, exercising, and having sex at the same time. Plus, it’s HR-approved. So how do we do more of that at work? First, recognize that everyone is funny in their own way, and that it’s possible to both hone your sense of humor and learn to deploy it more effectively..”
Until next time, let’s all try to “hone our sense of humour”… and remember that’s it’s not “unyogic” to ask for better pay 🧘♂️