Private and joint activities in the household: The evolving costs and benefits of togetherness
Since March 2020, lockdown policies have been implemented around the world to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. These policies affect households in various ways, apart from the effect on health risks. First, workplace closures are heterogeneously affecting workers and household income. Some workers see their work hours reduced or drop to zero, whereas others work from home for the original, if not higher, number of hours.
Second, the closure of schools and childcare centres are requiring parents to provide care for their children more intensively than before (Fuchs-Schündeln et al. 2020). This likely affects children’s socio-cognitive development, especially in low-income and less-educated households (Moroni et al. 2020, De Cao and Sandner 2020).
Finally, gender balance is at risk since lockdown policies appear to massively affect female-dominated industries (Alon et al. 2020, Hupkau and Petrongolo 2020, Queisser et al. 2020) and because women are more involved in stressful multi-tasking (Jessen and Waights 2020), something that the crisis is likely emphasising.
Through these effects, lockdown policies put household time use and welfare at the centre of the public debate. A central feature of household time use that is particularly relevant in the recent context is the distinction between the time that spouses spend privately and the time they spend together. However, economic models of household time use typically neglect this concept of togetherness.
While sharing activities with a partner is a major source of gain from marriage, very little is known about what costs and benefits accrue from togetherness, or how joint and private activities interact with each other.
In a recent paper (Cosaert et al. 2020), we propose an extension of the classical collective model of the household (Chiappori 1988) to address these questions, using Dutch data from 2009–2012. This column aims to (i) summarise the paper’s theoretical framework and main findings, and (ii) speculate how lockdown policies may affect the costs and benefits of togetherness in our framework.
Togetherness in a general context
We study how households (namely, two spouses: a wife and a husband) with young children allocate time across paid work, leisure, and childcare. A key feature is that in considering each spouse’s time at home, we distinguish between private (time spent alone) and joint (time spent together). For example, private leisure may include reading a book, while joint leisure may include watching TV together. Figure 1 shows that over 90% of households have some joint leisure.
Private childcare may involve feeding a baby or tutoring a young schoolchild, while joint childcare may involve both parents playing together with their child. Figure 2 shows that in the vast majority of households, both parents provide childcare, which is a necessary condition for joint childcare.
Figure 2 Weekly childcare: Mothers and fathers
Togetherness requires spouses to synchronise their schedules to be physically together at the same time. This feature of our paper highlights the fact that togetherness in activities such as leisure and childcare has benefits and costs.
Joint leisure brings the benefits of companionship. However, because it requires coordination between spouses, togetherness also entails a loss of flexibility in the labour market. Indeed, many jobs impose irregular, or unpredictable, work schedules (e.g. in food retail, medical services, as well as most high-responsibility occupations). Such jobs, which may offer a wage premium, impose more constraints on the time that spouses can spend together. Spouses choosing to enjoy time together may therefore have to renounce a job that requires labour market flexibility, thereby possibly also reducing their earnings.
Another important benefit of togetherness stems from joint childcare. While young children typically need the attention of only one adult, caring jointly for the child can be both beneficial for the child’s development and more enjoyable to the parents themselves. Offering joint parental childcare, however, prevents spouses from specialising and generates a trade-off between the quantity and the quality of childcare that they provide.
To see this, suppose for example that each parent has five hours available for childcare per day, and the child needs ten hours of attention per day. If both parents supply their hours privately, they supply ten hours in total. If instead, they decide to supply one hour together and their remaining hours privately, they supply a total of nine hours of childcare and need one hour of external care. In other words, a higher childcare quality (materialised by an additional hour of joint childcare) has a monetary cost equivalent to an hour of external childcare.1
Based on these insights, we develop a theoretical model of household time use featuring the above-mentioned benefits and costs of togetherness. We run the model on time use data from the Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social Sciences in the Netherlands.
As shown in Figure 3, we find that, on average, households pay at least €1.2 per hour (i.e. 10% of the average hourly wage) to replace private leisure with joint leisure, and at least €2.1 per hour (17% of the average hourly wage) to replace private childcare with joint childcare.2 These numbers, which are based on couples’ observed time use, show the extent to which they value being together rather than being alone during their leisure and childcare activities.
Figure 3 Distribution of value of togetherness
Our model delivers another interesting result. The spouse who works fewer hours in the labour market is also the person who forgoes labour market flexibility in order to increase togetherness. In the Netherlands – and many other countries – women work fewer hours than men, perhaps because of a gender wage gap or other reasons. Our model says that women will restrict their flexibility at their jobs to work at times that align with their husbands’ work hours and allow the couple to enjoy more time together.
Women, not men, lose flexibility because it is less costly for women to schedule their fewer working hours to align them with their husbands’. If flexibility at work pays a premium, women then forgo such premium and reinforce any pre-existing gender wage gap. This is consistent with Claudia Goldin’s argument (2014) that women’s restricted timing of market work explains a large part of the gender wage gap.
Lockdown and togetherness
Our theoretical framework allows us to shed some light on how lockdown may affect togetherness and through it, household welfare.
Stay-at-home orders and balanced telework (Baldwin 2020) have de facto relaxed constraints on spouses’ capacity to spend time together. Yet, lockdown policies have also changed the labour market in several ways. Adams-Prassl et al. (2020) show that lockdown affects employment depending on the extent to which jobs can be performed remotely. Jobs with irregular work schedules tend to be affected by the crisis more than jobs with regular schedules.3 This phenomenon is at least partly sector-driven: sectors such as retail, restaurants, hotels, entertainment, air and public transports, finance, and real estate services4 happen to be relatively intensive in irregular work (Golden 2015).
In our framework, this observation suggests that the crisis particularly affects employment of people who typically enjoy less together time in their household (they enjoyed less together time precisely because of the requirement to have flexible work schedules). This likely reduction in employment means those workers are now spending more time in their household, though also bringing in less income.
While school and childcare closures generated adverse effects on children and spouses, these policies have also introduced constraints on togetherness. The reason is that togetherness halts specialisation (this is the quantity–quality trade-off we discussed above), incurring costs to the family such as those of external childcare. However, with childcare closures, the cost of external childcare becomes drastically high. Our theoretical framework then implies that the cost of foregone specialisation (thus of voluntary joint childcare) becomes also drastically high.
The above are only two channels through which our theoretical framework may be used to study how lockdown policies may affect togetherness in the household. Note that our notion of togetherness is one where spouses voluntarily choose to spend time with one another or with their children, not one where people have this imposed on them. More work needs to be done to allow for shocks to the benefits of togetherness (e.g. possibility of conflict).
In this column, we have discussed the importance of togetherness in the household. We describe its implications for household welfare through an extension of the collective model of the household. In particular, joint leisure and childcare generate a loss of flexibility in the labour market, and joint childcare prevents specialisation, generating tension between parental childcare quality and quantity.
The empirical analysis based on 2009–2012 Dutch data finds substantial benefits to togetherness. The COVID-19 health crisis and the ensuing lockdown policies may have affected togetherness in multiple ways. While work from home relaxes certain constraints on togetherness, school closures have the opposite effect. Still, the strain induced by this exceptional situation may have generated negative externalities beyond the scope of our theoretical framework.
1 In addition to this trade-off, joint childcare also requires parents’ coordination, which also implies a possible loss of flexibility in the labor market, as described for joint leisure.
2 These numbers correspond to the lowest possible value for togetherness for which a household in our data is considered ‘rational’, in a way we define in the paper. We provide a revealed preference characterisation of family time allocations, which we use to estimate the above parameters.
3 Other relevant factors are the worker’s occupation and type of contract (Adams-Prassl et al. 2020).
4 This set of sectors is based on a consensus analysis of the opinions of 257 established economists affiliated with UK institutions.