15 May 20 | News

New study explores how households with young children allocate time across paid work, leisure, and childcare

LISER researchers Sam Cosaert, Alex Theloudis and Bertrand Verheyden publish a paper that presents a sophisticated and innovative extension of the classical collective model to allow for togetherness between spouses

Spending time together with a partner is a major source of gain from marriage. However, economic models of household time use typically abstract from togetherness; as a result, we know very little about how households value togetherness, what benefits and costs it accrues, or how it interacts with other time uses. Addressing these points is our paper's main goal.

We study how households (namely two spouses, a wife and a husband) with young children allocate time across paid work, leisure, and childcare. The distinguishing feature of our paper is the focus on togetherness: we divide the time each spouse spends on leisure and childcare to private (time spent alone) and joint (time spent together). For example, private leisure may include a lone stroll in the park while joint leisure may include a night out together at the movies. Private childcare may involve feeding a baby or tutoring a young schoolchild while joint childcare may involve both parents playing together with their child.

We acknowledge that togetherness requires spouses to synchronize their schedules in order to be physically together at the same time. This is another distinguishing feature of our paper. As such, togetherness has benefits and costs.

Joint leisure brings the benefits of companionship but entails the loss of flexibility in the labor market — at least in normal times. Consider a couple in which the husband has a regular work schedule but the wife, perhaps due to the nature of her job, has an irregular or unpredictable work schedule (e.g. a doctor being on call). This couple likely enjoys less togetherness than another one in which both spouses have regular work schedules. Togetherness requires synchronization of schedules, which may be impossible if the timing of work is irregular. Togetherness may be impossible without restricting one's flexibility at work and possibly reducing her earnings.

Joint childcare is beneficial for children's development but also entails the loss of specialization in the couple. Young children typically need attention for a given amount of time, say 10 hours; this usually requires only one adult. Suppose that each parent has 5 hours available for childcare. If both supply it privately, they supply 10 hours in total. If they supply it jointly, they only offer 5 hours. Care for the remaining time must then be provided by another, perhaps costly, caregiver.

Based on these insights, we develop a theoretical model for household time use. The model features togetherness and all the benefits and costs described above.

We run the model on time use data from the Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social sciences (LISS) in the Netherlands. We find that on average households pay at least €1.2 per hour -10% of the average wage- to replace private leisure with joint leisure, and at least €2.1 per hour -17% of the average wage- to replace private childcare with joint childcare. These numbers show the extent to which joint leisure and joint childcare are desirable over their private counterparts, based on couples' observed time use choices.

Our model delivers another interesting result. The spouse who works fewer hours in the labor market is also the person who forgoes labor market flexibility in order to increase togetherness. In the Netherlands -and in many other countries- women work fewer hours than men, perhaps because of a gender wage gap or other reasons. Our model then says that women will restrict their flexibility at work in order to work at times that align with their husbands' and allow the couple to enjoy more time together. Women, not men, lose flexibility because it is less costly for women to schedule their fewer working hours in such a way so that they align with their husbands'. If flexibility at work pays a premium, women then forgo such premium and reinforce any pre-existing gender wage gap. This is consistent with Claudia Goldin's argument that women's restricted timing of market work explains a large part of the gender wage gap.

Our results suggest that togetherness is an important component of household time use despite it being overlooked in the literature. This implies that modern policies aiming for example at work-life balance should not neglect togetherness as part of that balance. The core of our policy argument is that togetherness comes along with certain costs -we call them forgone flexibility and forgone specialization- that likely accrue differently to men and women. Any policy interested in togetherness should therefore closely look into those costs.

Read more here

Cosaert, S., A. Theloudis, and B. Verheyden (2020), Togetherness in the Household, Working Paper n°2020-01,60, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research..
Goldin, C. (2014). A grand gender convergence: Its last chapter. American Economic Review 104, 1091-1119.

Supported by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (C18/SC/12668748)