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Housewives Are One Surprising Solution To “Millennial Burnout”


Whether for being right or for missing the mark, that millennial burnout piece sure has made a splash. Ann Helen Peterson, writing for Buzzfeed News, weaves an interesting explanation about how society’s increasing work-related demands (more education, more qualifications, more debt) weigh heavily on millennials’ psyches — to the point that many of them find themselves unable to muster remaining motivation to do even ordinary tasks of daily living (“errand paralysis” about what you could call “adulting”) = Millennial Burnout.

There are plenty of criticisms available here. “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” offers a story of privileged, highly-educated burnout, when actually it’s a burnout story that applies towards people of many ages who find themselves working in the 24/7 information economy of today. And oh yeah, burnout intersectionality.

Personally, I’m not sure about the “burnout” label for this state of affairs in the first place, it seems a little idiosyncratic and overly broad. In any case, the “errand paralysis” hook is pretty compelling and widely relatable: why can’t kids today bring themselves to just “adult” and do the things that they need (and, on some level, want) to do? You know: registering to vote, managing insurance paperwork, getting knives sharpened, cleaning and maintenance and administrative tasks of any & all kinds.

I’m sure that some degree of “errand paralysis” has always existed. Workers are tired after work. But an awful lot of it is happening now. Millennials aren’t, as a generation, incompetent and un-conscientious (though we can certainly find examples of those). Instead, some kind of systemic factor now causes this inertia, and errand paralysis bears real costs in terms of money, emotional energy, and general well-being. Maybe some of the tasks lingering on your to-do list should just be given the axe. But others linger for a reason! There’s a reason you wanted them done, but there’s a reason you haven’t done them. Commence the standstill — and resulting shame. According to Peterson:

The problem with holistic, all-consuming burnout is that there’s no solution to it. You can’t optimize it to make it end faster. You can’t see it coming like a cold and start taking the burnout-prevention version of Airborne. The best way to treat it is to first acknowledge it for what it is — not a passing ailment, but a chronic disease — and to understand its roots and its parameters.

But Peterson is wrong about that. There is at least one solution to this kind of burnout, although this solution is not appealing or available to everyone. Burnout’s root cause is a mutually-reinforcing school/work/personal environment known as “total work”:

work will ultimately become total… when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

What if there were a way to enter a long-term, mutually-beneficial relationship with someone reliably helpful, whose interests align closely with yours? What if you could do this without doubling down on your family’s slavish commitment to the working world? Just what are the other viable ways of life that have disappeared from cultural memory?

Millennials need housewives

Housewives, whose primary focus is the maintenance of the home and people in it, are a hugely versatile resource. A housewife is the household’s private reserve of emotional, logistical, and financial capital. S/he doesn’t have errand paralysis, because she’s not trying to do the errands on top of a 50-hour work week and the routine of frenzied ritualistic “self-care” intended to keep the work week afloat. Housewives are an inconvenient, varyingly expensive, politically incorrect solution to millennial burnout.

To make a long story short: before there were housewives, there were farm wives, and on farms the work was somewhat gendered but not overwhelmingly so. Everyone (kids included) basically had to bust their butt from dawn to dusk doing all sorts of physical labor in order to stay afloat. And before there were farm houses, there were nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. With no houses, the non-house-wives dug for tubers while nursing babies (and toddlers), basically.

Now, the home is a complicated site of production and consumption. Consumption — largely of food, but also of things like entertainment — has to be arranged, as most of the consumables are not produced on the premises. Even doing this online presents a significant cognitive burden. In fact, interestingly enough, we are only now just sort of returning to a previous state where most of the home’s needs were delivered. Without delivery, who’s running around getting all this stuff? You guessed it — housewives.

And, of course, homes produce workers. Ideally, workers who are physically and mentally prepared for their work. Homes also often produce children, i.e. future workers. These are no small tasks, either. Errand paralysis drains workers, both in terms of mental overhead to remember/deliberate about them, plus the inherent loss from them not having been done yet. It’s not just an economic loss. These are people’s (frantic) lives we’re talking about.

Homes are also sites of relationship-building and personal growth. These do not have an obvious financial value, so people don’t know how to factor them in, and they’ve become systemically devalued in homes today — hence, the burnout.

Having a housewife in the family mix can remind the worker that his (or her!) commitment to work is largely instrumental, and that life is bigger than work. Scoffing at the very idea of a housewife is just evidence that you’ve already drunk the total work kool-aid that you now complain is killing you.

What is it like to be a housewife?

I don’t refer to myself as a “housewife” IRL, how awkward and passé. But in truth I prefer the term “housewife” to “stay-at-home mom,” which (overly) centers the children (and requires that there be some!)

Plenty of couples find that a housewife makes sense to them even in the absence of (human) children; perhaps the housewife does some remote/freelance/intermittent work (as “housewives” have always done, by the way). Maybe the person playing the “housewife” role is actually a man — there are some barriers to this, but it can work.

As for me, I’m a woman married to a man who works quite a bit. For about 3 years now, I’ve been mostly out of the workforce, though I have some side projects and opportunistically accept freelance work as it suits. During this time, I’ve given birth to 2 children and cared for 2 dogs with relatively little paid assistance. When I do need paid assistance, I arrange it myself. I do all the things my husband can’t do simply in virtue of being physically at work: I feed the children 3 or 4 times per day and walk the dogs once or twice. Diapers… oh, the diapers. I walk 1.5 miles each way 3 times per week to take my toddler to preschool.

But there’s more. I organized and executed a move to a new apartment. I do all the various paperwork and legwork for everyone’s insurance, medical appointments, and so on. I buy nearly all the food, some delivered and some on foot, as well as household supplies — it’s a major point of pride for me that we never run out of anything. It sounds a little silly to count that among one’s achievements, but the truth is that it’s really really nice always to have what you need.

Then I cook 7ish meals per week and assemble another 10+ from leftovers, make sandwiches, scramble eggs, etc. I purchase clothing for all 4 of us, mostly online, not to mention keeping it all clean(ish). Returns, warranty issues, miscellaneous customer service matters all fall on me. It’s a lot.

This second group of stuff is the interesting one — it’s the stuff that, even if you sent your children to daycare so you can work for money, still wouldn’t be done. It’s the stuff of “errand paralysis.” It’s the stuff of convenience startups (groceries, laundry, etc). It’s the stuff that’s sort of optional, but sort of not. It’s the stuff you let drop to the end of your to-do list, when work always wins.

As a housewife, my tasks are different each day. Some days are harder than others, some breaks come at off times. I don’t always get to everything now that we have kids — but that’s just a matter of ordinary prioritizing, not paralysis. When we’re apart, my husband focuses on his work, and I focus on mine. Sure, we’re busy and tired like everyone else, we have a very full life. But it’s merely full, not exploding.

Objections to housewives

A housewife can be expensive, sure. But maybe not as expensive as you think. A couple does not necessarily need twice the space of a single person. It usually costs money to work (second car, clothes, lunches…) There is real financial gain to be had from buying groceries instead of eating takeout all the time, finally filing those insurance claims, etc. Is it too cheesy to point out that housewives can provide intangible but financially-valuable emotional benefits of support and encouragement?

Obviously, if the housewife and the breadwinner separate, things get screwed up. Housewifing bears a different kind of opportunity cost than breadwinning, especially for educated housewives with previous careers. Depending on who you ask, former housewives either usually get totally screwed in divorces, or they make out like bandits. I don’t know. It’s a difficult problem. The housewife solution is not without risk to those involved, but what family arrangement is? The whole point of family is to get entangled. But if the alternative to family units managed by housewives is perpetual, crushing burnout for everyone, then perhaps it’s worth a shot.

I read Lean In, but I’m not totally buying it. Many workers do not especially love their jobs and cannot necessarily expect steady promotions and pay raises throughout their careers. As such, there is no good reason to think that the massively expensive (i.e. daycare $$$) early childhood years will necessarily come to be worth it in time.

Kids or no kids, two part-time earners in the household can sometimes work. Everyone works, everyone pitches in at home. But, in practice, this often looks more like sheer financial and personal chaos. Part-time work (for those not at the tippy top of the labor market) tends to be disproportionately less well-compensated and reliable than full-time work, not to mention the benefits.

As working women know all too well, whether they’re single or married, mothers or not — they still end up doing most of the housewife “second shift” work anyways! Just frantically, too late at night and too early in the morning. Not all there at work, not all there at home. Day in, day out. Burnout central.

Housewife burnout

Naturally, housewives can themselves experience burn out. “Stay-at-home mom depression” is having a moment now. Of course, we’ve heard about “stay-at-home mom depression” before. Remember “the problem that has no name”?

As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?

Yeah ok, lots of things about housewife life are repetitive. But does making other people’s beds, shopping for other people’s groceries, or becoming a sandwich artist really solve the problem? Rare is the person whose work (domestic or not) involves no boredom. The over-valuing of paid work as compared to unpaid domestic labor is a cause — not a solution — for housewife burnout. Labor force FOMO fuels many otherwise-happy housewives’ malaise. A little appreciation goes a long way.

I certainly have bad days and weeks. It’s very frustrating to turn and see some of my work (like, say, a freshly-cleaned floor) go immediately to shit at the hands of my two kids and two dogs. Some of the errand paralysis-type tasks are more frustrating than satisfying — dealing with medical paperwork and staying away from bill collectors is like a perverse game of modern bureaucratic whack-a-mole. My capacity (not to mention mood) fluctuates considerably, especially during pregnancy (now on #3).

But just try getting sick for a day or week, as a housewife, and watch everything fall apart. It’s horrifying, yet so satisfying. All that stuff — the dishes, the random mail, the shopping — it doesn’t do itself. Let anyone who asks “what do you do all day?” come see for themselves.

Resisting “total work”

Caring for a home, in the end, is caring for the people who live there. And caring for people is not simply an obstacle to everyone’s “real” work. It is real work.

If “millennial burnout” is really so relatable, grueling, crushing, and relentless, then it’s past time for the afflicted to consider their options — even costly and surprising ones. You can’t singlehandedly overthrow capitalism or establish Nordic-style institutions. But maybe you can break total work’s grip on your home in unilateral ways.

As an individual, it’s unlikely that you can just give up on paid work at will. But people organized into families enjoy a greater range of options for who’s doing what. I fully understand that this is not an option for families who find themselves genuinely towards the lower end of the income distribution. But, as Elizabeth Warren famously observes in The Two-Income Trap, some middle-class financial precarity is self-imposed (NOT ALL NOT ALL JUST SOME). If many types of higher education and housing are not good investments anymore, then you don’t have to keep going through the motions of saving for them. Fewer bedrooms, fewer cars. These are often choices. Do the math.

If your family is willing and able to make one income work, there is nothing wrong with foregoing financial earnings in the pursuit of a calmer collective life. You don’t owe society your paid labor. It is a voluntary, optional trade. Women’s (and mothers’) long-running shift into the workforce is not inexorable, and it has costs as well as benefits.

Gawking at (and disparaging) well-to-do housewives and stay-at-home moms is a long-standing phenomenon. But social change can and does often happen from the top on down. Lower-class moms opting out of paid work run the chance of looking lazy and risky. But if families with genuine options return to having housewives, it can begin to look like a considered decision based on the values of a home not singularly focused on work.

As the pressure cooker of total work continues to heat up, devoting household resources to care seems less like a luxury and more like a straight-up necessity. Commentators tend to assume that the answer to steep work demands is a more even division of household labor. But a less even division of household labor can be a counterintuitive solution, too. It just depends.

Assigning a family member most of the non-labor-market-work is not necessarily some patriarchal trick for devaluing them. On the contrary, it is a way of acknowledging how vast and important this body of tasks really is.