Ironically, the day I began writing this post, our local paper featured a front-page story titled, “The end of home ec.”
It explained that home economics courses (now called “family and consumer sciences”) were on the verge of elimination due to changes in the state’s minimum education standards.
Did you know our very word economy comes from two Greek words that mean household and stewardship?
The field of inquiry, scholarship, and practice called “home economics” picked up a bad reputation as women moved out of the home into the workforce en masse during the late 1960s and 1970s.
Much of the unpaid work that had been the province of the home for centuries—cooking, laundry, cleaning, caring for children and elders—gradually got outsourced to the market economy. Some economists say this artificially inflated the “economic growth” of the era, as households began paying cash for what had done in the unpaid (and invisible) economy of the home.
I don’t yearn for the old days of “stitch & stir” in the girls-only home-ec classrooms of yesteryear, and I’ve always felt cool to the concept of “consumer sciences.” But I do yearn for a society that accords deep respect and value to the unpaid labor and productivity of the American household. And I think we’re heading back in that direction.
Valuing unpaid labor as essential and economic
Households create other forms of essential economic value, too, more difficult to outsource. They teach children their native language, transmit culture and values, and shape a child’s understanding of the world and of human relationships.
Recent research by the Pew Research report reported that women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of the nation’s households. They bear the children, still take on the lion’s share of housework, and the childcare and eldercare. Families are stretched to their limits.
Previous research has shown that families currently provide about 70 percent of eldercare in the United States. Nearly half of American adults are currently involved in some level of unpaid eldercare, a trend that will continue as the Boomer generation ages.
The return of home economics
Demographers have predicted that the increasing caregiving roles in coming decades, combined with a loss of many traditional paying jobs, will transform the American family and the ways in which families interact with the marketplace.
They forecast more three-generation households, more in-home self-employment, more single-income households, more job-sharing, and more part-time work to accommodate the dual demands of childcare and eldercare.
They forecast more home economics! I’m defining home economics as the value of what individuals and families, aided by various support networks, make or do for their own direct use.
These new households of necessity will have less money to spend on eating out, vacationing away from home, and new cars and appliances. But they will be more in the market for tools and technologies that enable new forms of household production.
The sort of home economics I envision wouldn’t be so much taught as widely demonstrated and promoted. It would become a central feature of our private lives and public policies. It wouldn’t be relegated to classrooms. It would intertwine with both the market and non-profit economies in new and fascinating ways. It will invite new scholarship and new forms of entrepreneurship.
And as the home economics of earlier times adopted sewing machines, electric stoves, and dish washers and clothes dryers, the new home ec will employ and be supported by a variety of new technologies, as well as a large dose of community-wide collaborations.
Emerging signs of the new home ec
Maker culture promises to transform public libraries, schools, museums, health promotion centers, academic research institutions, and especially homes, into centers of production rather than consumption.
So called makerspaces are "collaborative learning environments where people come together to share materials and learn new skills, working from a mindset of community partnership, collaboration, and creation." The Maker Movement has spread rapidly around the world. You’ll be hearing a lot more about it.
Repair cafes are nonprofit, often volunteer-run spaces outfitted with tools, where people bring broken items and learn to fix them. Here’s a map of this growing movement, which started in the Netherlands.
Science shops are “small entities that carry out scientific research in a wide range of disciplines, responding to the local citizenry’s needs for expertise and knowledge – usually free of charge." Burgeoning throughout Europe, the idea has begun to grow throughout the world, including the U.S.
Fab labs (fabrication laboratories) are small-scale workshops offering (personal) digital fabrication. Like science shops maker-spaces and and repair cafes, they offer collaborative learning environments, where participants learn by making, inventing, repairing at little or no cost.
Many fab labs feature access to 3-D printers. As these devices become more common and less expensive, designers say they will become ubiquitous in homes, spawning a revolution in creating and making, just as home computing devices have transformed learning and communicating.
- Cooking, sewing, food gardening, carpentry? Oh yes! I think we’ve already seen a sharp turn back toward these classic forms of home production, in some cases dramatically changed by new tools and the advent of online collaborative learning. They seem so ho-hum and old-fashioned, you just don’t hear so much about them in the daily news.
New research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project: Family Caregivers 39 percent of U.S. adults are caring for an adult or child with significant health issues. Who are these caregivers?
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.