The Future of Unpaid Work: Simulating the Effects of Automation on Time Spent on Housework and Care Work in the UK and Japan

Published: 1 July 2021

Presentation at SASE Conference 2021

Date: 3rd July 2021, 1.30pm

Ekaterina Hertog[1]Setsuya Fukuda[2], Rikiya Matsukura[3], Nobuko Nagase[4] and Vili Lehdonvirta[5]

Unpaid household work is a major activity that impacts economic and social well-being. It is essential for human reproduction and enables all other forms of work. Recent debates about the “future of work” have engaged with the impact of technology on labour from various perspectives but have yet to address unpaid labour. This paper addresses this gap by focusing on two questions: First, what is the likelihood that various types of unpaid work will be automated? Second, what is the likely impact of such automation on time savings and gender equality, notably by facilitating female participation in the paid labour market? We use three established estimates of the likelihood of automation of paid work occupations as proxies for the future likelihood of automation of similar housework and care work activities. We specifically match paid work occupations with a harmonized list of 19 housework and care work activities in UK and Japanese national time use data. This matching enables us to simulate several plausible scenarios of how automating a variety of unpaid work tasks may impact the unpaid workloads across gender and age groups.

We find that most unpaid work activities are distributed within a range of 50 to 85 per cent across the two different automation likelihood scores. We analyse how the likely automation of these tasks is to decrease women’s daily unpaid workload. We also run a simulation to investigate whether the reduction of the domestic load is sufficient for men and women currently outside of the labour market to take on full-time or part-time paid work. We estimate that automation could free 1.9-2.4% of women in Japan and 0.4-0.8% in the UK to take up full-time employment and 5.4-7.0% of Japanese women and 3.7-4.9% of British women to take on part-time jobs. The impact for men is much smaller than that for women, except for the potential full-time employment which is higher for British men compared to British women.

The above is just one illustration of how labour-saving technology in the household can increase individuals’ time use choices. Women may also choose to spend the newly available time to sleep more, develop their human capital, have more rest, etc. Our broader argument, therefore, is that automation could bring about increased personal choice which can lead to greater well-being.


1. University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom

2. National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Tokyo, Japan

3. Nihon University, Tokyo, Japan

4. Ochanomizu University, Tokyo, Japan

5. Oxford Internet Institute