Published by EH.Net (November 2019)

Jeremy Greenwood, Evolving Households: The Imprint of Technology on Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019. xiv + 315 pp. $60 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0-262-03923-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Olga Malkova, Department of Economics, University of Kentucky.

In Evolving Households: The Imprint of Technology on Life, Jeremy Greenwood (professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania) argues that technological progress has been a major factor in reshaping the household landscape. In particular, the book uses changes in technology to explain the rise of married female labor force participation, a decline in fertility, a drop in marriage, changes in culture, and increased longevity and longer retirement.

Chapter 1 explores three forces behind the increase in female labor force participation: technological progress in the household sector, industrialization, and the narrowing of the gender wage gap. First, the book documents the increase in married female labor participation — from 5 percent in 1900 to 61 percent in 2000. The book ties this increase to a decline in time spent on household work, including meal preparation, laundry and cleaning. Real wages rose four-fold. Finally, women’s wages rose from 50 percent of men’s wages in 1900 to 72 percent in 2000, as the gender gap decreased.

The second industrial revolution occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century, during which we saw the spread of appliances such as dryers, electric irons, frozen foods, refrigerators, sewing machines, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners. Without these appliances, household chores were very time and labor intensive. The book uses household production theory to show that technological progress contributed to the increase of female labor force participation. These technologies reduced the marginal benefit of labor at home, which resulted in its decline. This led women to work in the labor force. Moreover, technological progress in the market reduced the importance of physical strength relative to mental tasks. This also encouraged women to enter the labor force.

Chapter 2 seeks to explain the long-run decline in fertility since the 1800s, and the boom in fertility around World War II in developed countries. It argues that the long-run decline in fertility is a result of a rise in women’s wages, because the opportunity cost of having children rose. The baby boom marks a mysterious interruption of the long-run decline in fertility in the U.S. from the 1940s to the 1960s, as well as in other developed countries. The author provides the spread of labor-saving technologies in the home and the advance of maternal medicine as the drivers of the baby boom. These technologies reduced the time cost of having children, which resulted in the baby boom. This is different from the popular Easterlin hypothesis, which states that the generation that grew up in the Great Depression had low material aspirations. Once they entered the labor force in good economic times, they used family formation as an outlet for their earnings. However, Greenwood argues that empirical evidence on who had children during the baby boom is not consistent with this theory.

Chapter 3 seeks to explain the decline in marriage and the rise in positive assortative mating since World War II. The chapter argues that improvements in income and household technologies caused this change. Previously, one of the major motivations for marriage was economies of scale in household consumption and production. With the advent of new household technologies, individuals were able to spend less time maintaining a one-person household.

Interestingly, between 1940 and 1960 the marriage rate increased. The chapter explains that, at first, technological progress enabled young adults to leave their parents and to establish smaller households. However, once household technology progressed further, and became cheaper, young adults were able to leave their parents and remain single. This story fits with the empirical facts that marriage declined the most among lower-educated individuals. Previously, lower-educated individuals were more inclined to marry for economic reasons. Labor-saving household products and a rise in income allowed these households to leave their parents and remain single.

Chapter 4 provides a fascinating account of an emerging topic of research in economics — the relationship between technological advance and social change. The book focuses on social change in women’s rights in the workplace, attitudes about married women working, and the sexual revolution. The chapter argues that technological progress in the home was conducive to the development of women’s rights in the workplace. Previously, households opposed women’s rights in the workplace because they feared that children whose mothers spent less time with them would experience adverse outcomes. The chapter argues that the time-saving technology in the household allowed women to go to work without spending less time with their children. This, together with rising wages, led the majority of society to vote for women to work in the workplace.

As a reader, I would have appreciated a more thorough discussion of the assumptions underlying the macroeconomic models the author presents. For instance, the book claims that working women now spend the same amount of time with their children as women who stayed home before because of labor saving technologies. It would be nice to back this up with data, or some empirical findings. Finally, there has been an explosion of reduced-form research on the household sector directly related to the topics covered in this book. Because these papers provide empirical tests of predictions of models posited by the authors, the book would benefit from a discussion of this work as well.

To conclude, this book can serve as a wonderful textbook in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses summarizing economic models at the research frontier. Its primary aim is to explain long-run trends by using macroeconomic models. Thus, I would recommend this book to any students interested in building models to explain long-run phenomena. Even though this book does not focus on empirics, it is of general interest to anyone interested in family economics. It provides a fascinating historical account of changes in factors pertaining to and affecting household economics from interdisciplinary sources, and supplements theoretical discussions with many tables and graphs documenting long-run changes.

Olga Malkova is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky and a Research Affiliate of the Institute of Labor Economics (IZA). Her paper, “Can Maternity Benefits Have Long-Term Effects on Childbearing?” was awarded the Heinz König Young Scholar Award, the IIPF Young Economists Award, and the 2015 Dorothy S. Thomas Award.

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