Another Economist Heard From in the Leisure/Work Debate

We are still getting e-mails, like this one, concerning our New York Times column a while back about the leisure/work distinctions in “hobbies” like gardening, cooking, knitting, etc.

But the following message, from economist Shoshana Grossbard, is easily among the best. She teaches at San Diego State and is the founding editor of the Review of Economics of the Household. Here’s an excerpt from her dispatch:

In your stimulating Freakonomics column of May 6, 2007, you propose the following definition of work and leisure: “It’s work if someone else tells you to do it and leisure if you choose to do it yourself.” Your examples of leisure include a home-cooked meal that Stephen occasionally prepares and tomatoes that Steven grows. Here are some of my ideas as an economist of the household as well as a wife and mother of 25+ years of experience.

I agree that an arbitrary categorization of household activities as work or leisure is meaningless. At the same time, basing that distinction on whether an activity is voluntary or commanded — as you suggest — is problematic as well. Most household production is performed on a voluntary basis. This certainly applies to most home cooking.

Nobody ever commanded me to cook. The father of my children would not have been my husband if he had told me to cook for him! When cooking is Stephen’s favored activity, it is leisure. He is indulging in his hobby. In contrast, I don’t consider cooking a hobby.

I would categorize as “work” most of the time I have spent preparing thousands of meals for my family. In my opinion, an activity in household production is work and not leisure if: (1) it is not a preferred activity, i.e. it entails a relatively high opportunity cost; and (2) a family member who benefits from the activity is willing and able to “pay” the person to engage in this activity (even if no actual monetary transaction occurs).

To me cooking is work: most times it entails an opportunity cost, such as the value of checking my emails or reading the Freakonomics column in the N.Y. Times. You may call me a mercenary, but I admit that I would not have cooked as many meals for my husband if he had not compensated me for it by increasing my individually disposable income. We had an implicit agreement that even though we were both holding full-time jobs outside the home, I would do all the at-home cooking.

It was also my job to meet with our children’s teachers in case they misbehaved in school. Being “talked down to” by an elementary school teacher is definitely not my idea of leisure, but it is an important input in the “household” production of quality children. My children’s father never wanted to talk to the teachers. That was part of my job…

It was my choice to engage in this household production because the price was right. My [now] ex-husband’s income covered most of our bills, leaving me more personally disposable income than I would have access to had we not entered this implicit contract involving the exchange of my time for his money…

If I am not exceptional in my mercenary nature, then other at-home cooks may also be expecting some reward for their efforts. Furthermore, men who don’t cook and expect their wives to cook for them may need to give up pleasant low-paying jobs in order to cover required quasi-wage payments. If they become employers of a cooking wife, they will gain from realizing that idiosyncratic food tastes may be an obstacle to marital bliss. Otherwise, if restaurant meals and frozen dinners don’t suit them, and they can’t afford to pay the quasi-wages that home-cooking women are expecting in today’s marriage markets, they may end up single!


Enough with the opaque dissertations on the work vs. leisure debate, which anyway Veblen already covered centuries ago. More posting please on how this is adopt a cat month.


A few problems with this analysis:

First, every activity, not matter how fun, requires time. Consequently, every activity has an opportunity cost, regardless of whether it is leisure or work. Thus, defining work as an opportunity-costing activity would require that all activities be work. Now that doesn't mean it cannot pass a cost-benefit analysis. A weekend in the Bahamas, in my mind, is a weekend well spent. Nonetheless, that means it's a weekend that cannot be spent at a football game, which is the opportunity cost. Nothing is opportunity cost free. So defining work as an activity with an opportunity cost is silly.

Second, as much as we can try, activities don't fit into neat binary categories, such as leisure and work. Some activities are part leisure and part work. For example, for Steven Levitt, reading Econometrica might be leisure, work, or both. The world isn't binary, even though humans, and thus economists, like to think it is (as Kenneth Burke said, we are inventors of the negative, which makes us view the world in a binary fashion). I'm not sure how to deal with this problem, but here's a suggestion:


X = The enjoyment of the activity
OC = The enjoyment of the most enjoyable activity given up (the opportunity cost)
L = The degree of leisure

I'm an economist in training, one could say, so I apologize if this oversimplified suggestion is nonsensical. All criticisms are welcome.



Grossbard response to mgjosefsen

I also find that my children are my greatest source of pleasure. Nevertheless, i would call 'work' many of the activities involved in helping children become 'parental pleasure providers', especially if the co-parent appreciates this work and is willing to pay for it. I am very lucky that my co-parent generally appreciated and continues to appreciate many of my contributions to our children's wellbeing, including the many visits I paid to the children's teachers and some of my cooking. His willingness to compensate me for that work has benefit the children and the parents.

John S.

You made your "co-parent" pay you to cook and go to PTA meetings?

I always thought of marriage as a salaried position rather that piecework, but whatever floats your boat.

How surprising that you are no longer married!


Grossbard's (Shosh's) reply to 58saavedra:

You have an excellent point. Of course every activity entails an opportunity cost! The i.e. in the text should be crossed out. I define work in marital household production as an activity with a high opportunity cost. It is NOT a preferred activity. Time to write S and S and ask if my mistake can be corrected.


Shosh's reply to John S:

As a wife and divorcee, I never got paid by piecework. As is the case with a large proportion of married women--including many with careers outside the home--I got paid in the form of in-kind benefits, such as access to a house I could have never afforded if I were a single mom. My ex-husband and I would have probably had a shorter marriage had we not successfully agreed on successful cooperative agreements with respect to child-rearing and other household production, and our divorce would have been less amicable.


The way I look at it, cooking is necessary unless I want to feed my kids fast food all of the time. So, I have made it into a hobby to take some of the boredom out of it.

As far as knitting goes, it is no more "work" than painting a canvas. It is simply a form of creative expression these days. With good yarn costing 20 bucks a skein, it cannot be argued that it is a purely utilitarian activity.


So her ex-husband paid her to cook? Is this normal? I, by any means, don't command my wife to cook, and if she worked full time then I might consider the idea of "paying" her to cook. The problem arises when one part of the marriage is acting subordinate to the other. The entering of a payment system implies superiority. Either one is the boss and the other the employee or one is the parent and the other the child. I would find this type of arrangement to be altogether disturbing.

My form of "paying" my wife back is to keep the kitchen clean. That is part of my "job." While I do enjoy cleaning, I don't enjoy it nearly as much as many other things that could be done in its place.

Adolfo Espionza

It seems that some readers cannot understand the economics found in home production. This is why you are hesistant to understand the author's (Shoshanas) point. You can calculate the opportunity cost of cooking for your children, providing first aid, mentoring them, etc. If you do it at no cost it does not mean it does not exist! Finally, it is important to stick to the argument and not go off on the author's personal life (John S.) I thought your statement was rubbish because it distracts your readers from your message, I think.

Now, before you judge this statement understand what I try to convey. "When I get married I will encourage my wife to be a homemaker so that she can monitor our children, safeguard them, and make their quality of life as best as she can. In return, I will treat my personal income as if we both earned it ourselves. Our roles are both fair and neither of us did it out of leisure".



Okay, this is pretty much a dead line of discussion, but I feel compelled to post nonetheless.

The subject of housework has been an issue between my wife in I throughout our twenty years of marriage. (I've got documented proof that I've done as much cooking and cleaning as she has!) The difference seems to be largely one of perception--she sees it as "work" that she is "expected" to do. I see it as responsibility--just a part of normal every day life, like self-care. You take a shower every day. You brush your teeth. You exercise. Likewise, you have to eat something, so you have to cook it. You purchase a house, and for it to retain its value, you have to take care of it. You gladly have sex and bring children into the world, and it turns out they're an enormous responsibility--who knew?

My point then, I suppose, is that she finds these tasks to be much more distasteful than I do because of her perceptions. Now, while I wouldn't go so far as to say I "enjoy" them, I accept them as necessary tasks that somebody has to do to maintain quality of life. Perhaps the more cogent question isn't about fairness and gender roles but rather where these perceptions are derived from in the first place.