This is one of a series of posts based on the book Life Admin: How I Learned to Do Less, Do Better, and Live More, by Elizabeth Emens.
In a previous post, I described the hidden, unpaid labor that Elizabeth Emens calls life admin: research, calling, scheduling, making lists, paying bills, making appointment and hundreds of other tasks that are necessary to a well run household. Ignoring the admin of life is not a viable option, unless you’re comfortable with the conflict, cost and inconvenience of fixing problems when they occur.
So how do families decide who does the admin? Elizabeth Emens says it happens in several ways, some of them deliberate and some entirely random.
First, there’s a gender divide. Research shows that most life and household admin is handled by women as part of their Second Shift. If it falls under the category of household tasks, we still think of it as women’s work. Both spouses work full time in 48 percent of U.S. households, but working women still do the majority of life admin, especially when there are children whose schedules and care must be managed. Most of the social obligations are handled by women: remembering birthdays, shopping for cards and presents and scheduling events. As I write this, I can’t think of a single couple we know where the man has social scheduling authority. No matter how powerful or organized his is, when you ask if they’re free for dinner Friday night, he’ll say: “Not sure – talk to the boss.”
The second divide is along skill sets. “You’re just better at this kind of stuff.” The more organized partner, the one who’s better with technology, the one who has a knack for dealing with people, the one who develops a better system – that’s who gets the job. Once you have the job, Emens says you can almost never give it up; admin is sticky.
Since it’s easy to see that the admin sticks to the more competent partner, Emens says it’s not uncommon for the other partner to develop a tendency for what she calls “strategic ball dropping.” If you forget to pay a bill or schedule a task, or lose documents repeatedly, eventually you’ll be relieved of those duties. If you’re this partner, stop it. Stop it now.
Another division of labor occurs by chance or history. Chances are, if you do the admin the first time, it’s yours for the duration. Emens writes about a married couple driving across the country moving from one state to another. They alternating driving duties with the passenger calling their new city to set up utilities and other services. Ten years later, whatever admin they had set up in the car remained their job.
When households are merged, the person who was already resident usually retains the admin associated with the house, even if the partners are equal. Often, this is because vendors tend to continue communicating with the original partner, even if he or she isn’t handling that task any more. In the same way, parents in merged families might divide the admin of children, parents or pets into yours, mine and ours categories for handling.
Even if you develop a deliberate and thoughtful plan to divide work equitably, admin creep can occur. One way this happens is when you outsource chores. Emens defines chores as actually doing work (think grocery shopping or mowing the lawn) as opposed to the admin around these tasks. Outsourcing may seem like a great way to reclaim hours that can be spent on more valuable activities.
But you may have just liberated the person doing the chore – your husband mowing the grass, for example – by turning it into an admin task that the other partner has to handle. The husband frees up two hours of lawn time, but the wife now spends time scheduling the service, writing checks and researching new landscapers if one doesn’t work out. Emens warns her readers to be careful when outsourcing chores – you may create more admin and more frustration for your partner.