Dishwashers, Subsititute Goods and the Decline of the Nuclear Family

Returning back to economics, the latest chapter of my worked solutions mentions that different goods can be classified as substitutes and complements.

Now, as any fule kno, substitutes are players you bring off the bench halfway through a footy game, and complements are what you give to pretty ladies to make them like you. Er, hang on…

Well, in economics, substitute goods are things you’d buy one instead of another. Fried chicken or a hamburger, a motorbike or a car. Complementary goods are things you tend to buy with each other. Tomato ketchup with hamburgers, a spare tyre with a car.

Now,at the risk of with the certainty of being controversial, I’d like to suggest an unlikely pair of substitute goods, the dishwasher and a housewife.

(left) A housewife? (right) A dishwasher

(left) a housewife ? (right) a dishwasher ?

Now, I’m not trying to be a troll here, but to grab your attention while I make a serious point… that labour-saving domestic appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners et al have helped contribute to the decline in the ubiquity of the nuclear family, and led to a society where there are more single mothers, and people divorcing and remarrying and having different children with different partners.

Here’s the logic. For the longest time, there was a strict(ish) division of labour between men and women in the family. Men earned the money, while women brought up the children, cooked and looked after the home. Women had domestic value, but very little market value. They were completely dependent on their livelihood for men – no wonder then that they had little rights to their own property and couldn’t divorce. Economics necessitated the stable, nuclear family – there was no other choice.

As the 20th century wore on, things began to change. Labour-saving domestic appliances became available: washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers, ovens etc. These were essentially substitutes for the services women provided in the home. Women’s domestic value was being reduced.

Luckily, women’s market value was increasing. More oportunities arose for women (who presumably had more free time with all these devices) to find work and earn a reasonable wage. The experience of two world wars, where women had to work in the factories while men were conscripted. The growth of a service economy, with jobs in retail, health, education and administration, which didn’t require manly brawn like the older manufacturing and  mining sectors. All these things lead to more women joining the workplace.

Women were no longer economically dependent on men. If a relationship didn’t work out, or was abusive, women could now walk away. They had much more ability to make their own choices in their relationships as well as in their careers. “Liberation for women. That’s what I preach, Preacher man.”

Eventually laws, customs and attitudes came to reflect the changed economic system. Women could have property of their own. Divorce became easier. The variety in the types of family reflected the greater economic freedoms.

I remember sitting in a bible study with an elderly member of the church who had once been leader of the City Council. He said, if he was ruler of the world for a day, he’d ban divorce. He’d worked in the family courts as a lawyer, and disliked how families broke up. As a Christian and social conservative, I guess (and I am guessing – putting thoughts in his mind) he saw divorce as an individual and moral failing. If people would only try harder. If only our laws and attitudes had not become so permissive. No wonder we’d become ‘Broken Britain‘…

I’m not here to take sides in that debate. But I just never guess it had occurred to him that changes in morality and attitudes and family arrangements had technological and economic roots as much as moral and legal ones. Indeed, while much of our study of history at school seems concerned with how great battles and monarchs shape our destiny, I suspect that technological change – such as our humble dishwasher – has far more affect on how we work, live and love.

P.S. I realise this is a gross simplification of only part of the story. For example, another technological breakthrough – the contraceptive pill – had a huge effect on sexual habits. I just think that we underweight technological and economic factors on things that don’t seem technological or economic, but personal and moral.



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5 responses to “Dishwashers, Subsititute Goods and the Decline of the Nuclear Family

  1. Pingback: The Youth of Today | Steven Clarke's Blog

  2. Pingback: More on Substitutes and Complements | Steven Clarke's Blog

  3. tyze

    Interesting post. I know of a paper on a closely related topic. You may be interested: The main idea in this one is that divorce was risky for women as they generally had no education, so divorce meant a low-income life. But then as divorce became more likely (changing laws, customs, dishwashers, etc.) women felt they needed to insure against it. They did so by getting more education. But as the education gap between spouses shrank, women became more and more comfortable with divorce (as they had a good earning power). And this reinforced the mechanism.

    Now the education gap between males and females is gone, matter of fact females are better educated.

    Another interesting thing is that you say that the nuclear family was an economic necessity. But then why weren’t other similar arrangements common, like polygamy? There are actually nice economic explanations for that as well, for instance see

    • Hi tyze. Thanks for your comment – I believe you’re the first to do so on my blog!

      Those are both very interesting links. Regards polygamy, I believe there have been anti-polygamy laws in place since the Roman emperors, which were further reinforced by the Church. I expect the economic benefits of polygamy (if they did exist) may well have been relevant at that time, so this might be a case of cultural norms being more important than economic forces.

  4. Pingback: People Respond To Incentives | Steven Clarke's Blog

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