“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
When Lev Tolstoy started writing Anna Karenina he was not aware that this incipit was going to become immortal, but he was aware of the importance of the family for the development of his characters. What made his incipit immortal is precisely that it does not only apply to his novel, but to the story of everyone, across time and space. Every human is born in a family: no matter if big or small, happier or more problematic, more or less united, we all belong to something that in a way or another we call family.
The family is the oldest of human institutions, and it has developed just as much as the human kind through the centuries. During the 20th Century, most OECD countries have witnessed remarkable shifts in almost any aspect of human life due to changes in geopolitical equilibriums, values and technology. These changes have had an effect also on family structures and interpersonal dynamics: households have smaller sizes, marriages have decreased, divorce rates have increased, new forms of unions such as unmarried cohabitations appeared and fertility rates are lower. Beginning with the 1960s, a large amount of interrelated economic, technological and social factors, combined to accelerate and trigger these changes in family features.
We probably underestimate the impact that technology has had on family structures and individual development; however, it is thanks to many of the machines that we have in our houses today that the world has changed massively in the past half a century and why, in turn, family structures have changed. To make an evident example, we can think of how people’s, and especially women’s lives, improved with the diffusion of all those ‘time-saving’ appliances, such as vacuum cleaners and washers. Can you imagine how your life would have been as a child if your mother had to spend half her day hand washing dirty laundry?
In 1948 Britain for example, less that 3% of households had a washing machine, in the 1960s that figure had risen to about a third of the population and by 1972 to 2/3. In one of his most inspiring TED Talks, the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling describes precisely the impact that washing machines had on women and families around the world. Washing is one of the hardest and most time consuming labors that has to be done in a household, and still today it is a job left to women. Since the invention and diffusion of this device, women in most developed countries have much more time to invest on themselves, on their education and on their children.
The technological development brought by modernisation has contributed to the shifts of roles and dynamics within families. The Economist estimates that in the 1960s women spent almost 10 hours a week on childcare, 3 times that amount on house work, and less than 10 hours a week on paid work. In the past forty years things have changed: paid work more than doubled as women resisted traditional roles, the amount of housework almost halved in that time, while childcare decreased slightly and then increased again. Obviously these technological improvements also influenced men’s lives: in the 1960s men spent 40 hours a week on paid work, and almost no time on housing or childcare at all, less that 10 hours combined. With time, they started spending less hours at work, almost doubled the chores, but still do half as much housework as their female counterparts, and spend more time with their kids.
This does not mean that all the great changes of the past century can be conduced back to the diffusion of the washing machine; however, we should not underestimate the impact of technological inventions on the levels of individual productivity and how this influenced people’s roles in society. The diffusion of ‘time-saving’ devices within the households triggered female productivity and this led, inevitably, to those changes in the secular family relations that distinguish Anna Karenina from women today.