New technologies and collaborations underpin the demographic shift to more unpaid productive labor in the home | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Today's Home Economics

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Signs of an emerging home ec for modern times

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Today, our local paper featured a front-page story on the “end” of home economics courses (now called “family and consumer sciences”). Apparently, it’s on the verge of elimination in schools due to changes in minimum education standards. However, in the greater world, I’m seeing signs of a new “home ec” for today’s times …

Did you know that 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 that this artificially inflated the “economic growth” of the era, as households began paying cash for what used to be done in the unpaid (and invisible) economy of the home.

I don’t yearn for the old days of “stitch and stir” in the girls-only home ec classrooms of yesteryear, and I’ve always felt cool to the concept of “consumer sciences.”

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. 


Photo: Home economics, 1917, by doc1Some rights reserved.

Valuing “Unpaid” Labor and Modern Life Skills

Households create other forms of essential economic value, too, that are 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.

Research reports have shown that women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 52 percent of United States households. They bear the children, still take on the lion’s share of the housework, and provide the childcare and eldercare.

Families are stretched to their limits.

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 nonprofit 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 dishwashers 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.

5 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. These collaborative learning environments (so called makerspaces), where people come together to share materials and learn new skills, promote the mind-set of community partnership, collaboration, and creation.
  • Repair cafés are nonprofit, often volunteer-run spaces, outfitted with tools, where people can learn how to fix the broken items that they bring in.
  • 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 makerspaces, repair cafés, and science shops, they offer collaborative learning environments where participants learn by making, inventing, and/or 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 that 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. 

These seem so ho-hum and old-fashioned, and you just don’t hear very much about them in the daily news. But they’re on the way back—not that they ever left to begin with! 

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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