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The middle hasn't been squeezed as much as you think

The middle 20 per cent of working age households in 2011-12 had on average the same real-terms income as four years before.

Today we publish Riders on the Storm our new report on middle income households. But you know their story, right? The operative verb is to squeeze, or to be squeezed. Yet the data we've used - a panel survey conducted by researchers from the University of Essex for the past 20 years - shows something different.

The middle 20 per cent of working age households in 2011-12 (the latest survey data available) had on average the same income in real terms as four years ago. In other words, even in the teeth of the greatest recession in a century, their income wasn't squeezed, though it did stop increasing. It gets better, literally. Start at the other end in 2007-08 and two fifths of the middle income households moved up into the 40 per cent of the distribution that was above them. Around the same number stayed where they were in the middle 20 per cent. The rest moved down.

But how can this be? It's been proved definitively that real incomes are falling. The reason is that most work on these issues compares snapshots taken at different times except they are snapshots without the same people in them. We, too, found that the middle in 2011 had lower incomes than the middle in 2007. But those two snapshots of the middle don't contain the same people. As I said in the paragraph before, only around two fifths of the middle stayed in the middle over those four years.

To compare the two different snapshots is like looking at family photos and saying "Wow, auntie has really changed", except in the time between when the two photos were taken your uncle has divorced and remarried. This is why we chose to look at what happens if you keep the same people in the snapshot.

There are other problems with the typical approaches in this area too. Take this series of incomes: 3, 3, 5, 7, 20. Some of the work done by others focuses on the median income. The median in this series is 5. Imagine that we leave this series alone for four years and then come back to it. The person on 7 has retired, to be replaced by a much younger person earning 4. The new series is: 3, 3, 4, 5, 20. Suddenly the median has dropped from 5 to 4 even though no one got poorer. And, by the way, the median falls even if the person earning 5 before has popped up to 6, 7 or even 19.
Obviously it's still significant that the median is lower. But it's lower in my example because of a demographic change not because the middle was squeezed.

Right, enough of the thought experiment. Back to our findings. Track the same people and you find that their incomes haven't been squeezed. Yet they are stagnant. Despite being four years' older and despite, as our data also shows, slightly more of them being in work. So we're not getting carried away. The other reason not to put out the bunting is that the bottom 20 per cent, in particular, had a really bad time. Their level of employment had fallen. As many as a quarter were behind on their rent or mortgage.

Squeezed middle? Perhaps not. Smacked bottom? Yes, certainly.

Emran Mian is director of the Social Market Foundation

Emran Mian is director of the Social Market Foundation

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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.