Anthony Petrosino knows precisely how much time he spends on cleaning each week. "One CD's worth," he says. "You're talking a maximum of 74 minutes." On holidays and special occasions, when company is expected, Petrosino, a 36-year-old post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, breaks out a double compact disc-perhaps Springsteen's "The River" or the Beatles' "White Album." And on those very special occasions when he's expecting out-of-town guests, he splurges for one of those toss-in-the-tank cleansers that color his toilet water a fantasy Mediterranean blue.
At Thanksgiving, Petrosino and his friends who rarely cook gather for a very untraditional dinner. No turkey. No stuffing. No yams, even, with or without marshmallow topping. "Because they cook so infrequently, they feel they have to make something exotic, something that normally nobody would want to eat," he says. "So at the last minute, everyone's running around town trying to find that obscure ingredient-that eye of newt."
Petrosino's world is becoming more and more the norm in the United States, according to a new report by the "Americans' Use of Time Project" (AUTP), to be released this month. The report, by John Robinson, professor of sociology and director of the AUTP at the University of Maryland in College Park, is an update of Robinson's 1985 housework trends study, and the findings should come as welcome news to anyone who's ever felt guilty about sweeping dirt under a rug. With people getting married later in life, having children (and fewer of them) later in life, and working more hours, time devoted to the homely arts-cleaning, cooking, yard work, and such-has fallen for both men and women.
Chalk up some of the decline to more women entering the work force. In 1995, according to the new survey, women spent 15.6 hours a week on housework, down from 27 hours in 1965, the first year the survey was conducted. Men filled part of the cleaning gap, at least in the first 20 years: from 1965 to 1985, the number of hours men spent on housework rose from 4.6 to 10.1 hours. But the guys started slacking off again from '85 to '95: their time spent on chores slipped to 9.5 hours.
The year 1965 may well represent the high point in homemaking history. That was the year a film about a demure Austrian nanny-The Sound of Music-won an Academy Award for Best Picture. The made-for-TV movie Cinderella was broadcast to one of the largest television audiences in history. Onscreen, Mary Tyler Moore hadn't even gotten a job yet, but she won her second Emmy for portraying a stay-at-home mom in New Rochelle, New York. In fact, Laura Petrie, Samantha Stephens, and other sitcom mamas were all keeping very tidy houses-usually while wearing nicely starched shirtwaist dresses and matching pumps-and ruling the airwaves.
Last year, on the other hand, Helen Hunt, starring as an overworked single mother with bad health insurance (and a mighty messy apartment), picked up the Oscar for Best Actress.
Female surgeons and an FBI agent in search of extraterrestrials were the television role models for young girls. And television's favorite nanny wasn't prancing through the Austrian Alps, singing happy songs with her tow-headed brood: She was smart-mouthed Fran Drescher, who spent more time primping and kvetching than picking up after the kids.
Martha Stewart's house aside, these days fast food rules, more and more illegal aliens are doing the chores, and manufacturers of cleaning products are panicking as sales continue to slide: they've dropped 6.1 percent from 1992 to 1996, to $3 billion, the latest statistics available from Packaged Facts. So what's job number one in product development these days? Come up with fun, easy-to-use, scented products that will mask that nasty smell creeping into untidy American households.
"There are a lot more dustballs in the United States," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York City, which tracks the changing nature of work and domestic life. "Whenever I tell my audiences that, everyone laughs, somewhat embarrassed. But with the increased amount of time people are working, something has to give way. Housework is simply a lower priority." Faced with the choice of spending a few more hours with their children (or rollerblading) versus having a kitchen floor you can eat off of, Americans have no trouble deciding: Leave the house dirty.
And you can forget your social stereotypes about the great unwashed. A recent survey of 1,013 adults by the Soap and Detergent Association found that the more educated people are, the less likely they are to think dusting is important. Half of those respondents with only a high school diploma believed it was important to dust, compared to 36 percent of college graduates.
"It seems college graduates move on to more esoteric concerns," says one sarcastic industry spokeswoman.
Not surprisingly, the people who are spending the most time on housework overall are married women with children, the AUTP study found-not because they want to, but because kids make more of a mess. Women with children average about three more hours of housework a week than women with no kids. But the number of hours for fathers shows no difference than that of non-fathers.
"Men with children work more at paid labor" outside the home, explains Beth Anne Shelton, professor of sociology and director of women's studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. As a result, there is less societal pressure on them to do more at home, Shelton says. Meanwhile, "Nobody ever asks women, 'Why aren't you working more?' They want to know if you're caring for your kids." Society has certain expectations of women, Shelton says, whether they are employed or not.
That's no news flash to women like Lisa Bauso, a part-time photographer and mother of two, who lives in Eugene, Oregon. "I try not to make it look like the kids run the house," says Bauso, whose husband, Joe Rojas, a science writer, does a substantial amount of the housework. But when it comes down to it, if the house is dirty, outsiders will blame Bauso, she says.
"I have friends who have kids, who throw up their hands and say, 'This is how it's going to look for the next seven years.' I at least make an effort. But it's constant, 24-hours-a-day, picking up crap."
The solution to doing it all, of course, is to hire a cleaning lady, a luxury that may be becoming more commonplace. Robinson of the AUTP reports that the number of people who say they have maid service has stayed constant since the 1960s, at 16 percent. But those numbers are misleading, says Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, branding consultants for Procter & Gamble, Pizza Hut, and several other mega-corporations.
"People-especially those in public office-don't want to be quoted as having outside help," he says, "because the percentage [of maids] with proper working papers is pretty low."
Jay Kauffman, who runs one of the New York metropolitan area's largest home-cleaning companies, says his business has quadrupled since it was founded in 1965; the number of independent contractors he employs has risen from 10 to 50. He says he has "avoided illegals like the plague," although it becomes harder and harder each year, with an ever-demanding public expecting to pay fees below minimum wage.
"It's a real rat race," says Kauffman. "Competition is fierce."
That's the sentiment in the hallways of America's top soap and detergent companies as well. Marketing experts are trying desperately to find tricks to grow sales in a mature industry that already spends about $230 million annually on advertising. A few years ago, the new approach was greener products. But that earth-friendly strategy, although currently making something of a comeback, didn't last very long the first time around. Bauso, who lives at one of the centers of the environmental movement in Eugene, Oregon, echoes many consumers when she says she tried eco-friendly cleaners, but abandoned them in no time.
"They don't work as well," she says. "Not as good as old-fashioned chemicals. "
Jim Figura, vice president of consumer research and insights at Colgate-Palmolive, says the demographic models previously followed by companies are nearly useless when plotting strategy in the '90s. Age, sex, and income don't drive marketing as much as character does.
"People want a new experience," he says. "Just like people are looking for new, crazy vacation destinations. That same sentiment gets down to the mundane things in life." Candles and shower gels are two examples of character-driven products, Figura says, aromatics that make life a bit more interesting and appeal across all demographics.
Nearly every big manufacturer of house-cleaning products has added a line of candles, placing scented wax gobs on supermarket shelves right next to the air fresheners. According to Business Trend Analysts, air fresheners, including candles, accounted for the largest segment of new product introductions last year-46 percent-and the ripple effect is being felt throughout the industry. This year, for example, Scott's Liquid Gold repackaged and redesigned its Elite Touch of Scent refillable fresheners.
"People can at least say their house smells cleaner," says Celeste Broyles of Business Trend Analysts, noting that products like carpet deodorizers have really taken off.
Yankee Candle Company in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, is one outfit that anticipated the smell-good trend. Company founder Michael Kittredge was still living at home with his parents when he started his business in the late '60s-a Christmas candle for his mother was his first product-and hit the million-dollar mark in 1983. Now it's a $150-million-a-year operation. One of its most popular items is a blueberry candle that camouflages pet odors.
"You know how frequencies can cancel each other out in radio waves?" says company spokesman Tim O'Brien. "Well, the blueberry cancels out the frequency of kennel odors."
More likely the candle, one of the most odoriferous in Yankee Candle's 200-scent line, simply masks the smell of dirty cats and dogs, and the stinky carpets and furniture they leave in their wake. And a candle costs a lot less than a maid.
Colgate's Figura says he believes the future of clean can be seen overseas in Europe and Latin America, where olfactory-oriented cleaning products-not just fresheners that mask houseitosis-are all the rage. Products like Ajax's Fetes de Fleurs, and Fabuloso, a Latin American cleaner, "deliver sensory benefits-for people who look for fragrance as a signal of clean."
"It's going to happen in the U.S.," Figura says confidently. "It's just a matter of time."
The idea of experience- or character-driven products carries over into the fast-food industry, another sector that is enjoying skyrocketing sales, in part because mom and dad are too busy to cook and do the dishes. The biggest drop in housework, according to Robinson's latest data, has been in cooking and meal clean-up activities: For women, the number of hours devoted to the culinary arts per week dropped from 8.8 in 1985 to 5.7 in 1995. For guys, the hours went from 2.4 to 1.9. It's no accident, says Landor Associates' Adamson, that the fast-food market has exploded in the past decade. And the increased competition has forced companies to differentiate their burgers, chips, and nuggets in new ways.
"Is it fun to eat?" Adamson asks. "People before were looking at linear things, like taste and packaging. Now we look at the whole buying and consumption experience." Beanie Babies, Happy Meals, even those Oscar Mayer Lunchables-prepackaged meal-size cold cuts and cheese that are so popular with grade-school children-reflect this trend, says Adamson.
Years ago, he explains, consumers didn't have the choices they have now. "There was one chicken place, one hamburger place, and one pizza place," he says. "Now you have ten in each category. It's not just the pizza anymore. It's the experience of the pizza."
Like the fast-food industry, cleaning product manufacturers are developing products that appeal to stressed-out consumers. What could be better, say, than time-saving cleaners that barely get your hands dirty? Clean Shower is one of the most successful cleaning products of the '90s, and went from $0 to $11 million in net sales from 1995 to 1998. It was invented by a chemist whose wife made him clean the tub.
"I did it once and said, 'This is terrible. Nobody should have to do this,'" says inventor Bob Black, who immediately ran to his Jacksonville, Florida, garage and produced the environmentally friendly self-scrubber. Just a spray of Clean Shower removes soap scum and mildew, then creates a protective barrier against future dirt so "you never have to clean your tub again," Black says. "It's a very male-oriented product," he adds. "Just pull the trigger and leave." Okay, so maybe it's not quite as effective as getting down and scrubbing. But Americans are happy to settle for diminished returns.
Each year, Black receives hundreds of letters, begging him to invent new products to make people's lives even easier. "People have asked for Clean Cat and Clean Living Room," he says, laughing. Clean Cat, maybe. "But I don't know how you'd do Clean Living Room."
S.C. Johnson, third-ranked in household cleaner sales behind Reckitt & Coleman and Clorox, is trying to catch up by developing new time-crunching products. "People have less time, obviously," says Marilyn Blood, Johnson's manager of marketing public relations. "So you want something that will produce the same results with less time. Because people are not willing to live with dirt," she says, hopefully. Vanish Hang-Ins are automatic toilet bowl cleaners that not only color the water but also promise to remove mold-without your having to stick your hands in the nasty bowl. Windex Outdoor claims you can wash your windows without ever actually touching the dirty plates of glass. Just spray it on and within 15 to 20 seconds, you rinse away the dirt with your garden hose. "It saves getting on a ladder and wasting a whole Saturday," says Blood. "You can basically do your whole house in one hour."
As if things weren't difficult enough, marketers can no longer rely on having a captive television audience to whom they can pitch their wares.
"Women are not at home any more. They're not watching TV and preparing to shampoo the rug," says Adamson. Computers and the fast-click world of remote-controlled cable TV are affording advertisers even less time for a sales pitch-to either men or women. "It's all having an impact on media strategy," Adamson says.
It sure is. This summer, desperate to get consumers to notice-if not squeeze-the Charmin, P&G sponsored a two-day summit meeting to discuss Internet advertising. Four hundred top executives convened in Cincinnati to learn what consumers already know-that banner ads on Web sites are often ignored. "Companies," says Adamson, "are petrified of the Web and aren't sure how to use it."
Success may lie in pairing more subtle advertising with practical, interactive Web pages: P&G, for instance, has a Pampers site that addresses the concerns of expectant parents. And Adamson advises clients to aim high with product development, and then watch the age-old tool-guilt-do the rest. Consumers may not be buying as much in quantity, but quality buys are on the rise. "People are buying better stuff," Adamson says, like expensive vacuum cleaners and horizontal-axis high-efficiency washing machines.
"They might not be doing the work themselves, so they'll buy the expensive cleaners," he says. "They let their guilt shine through."
But even traditionalists aren't sure the guilt factor will work in a world forever changed since the social revolution of the '60s, a world less hospitable to Jewish mothers, Catholic guilt-trippers, and the Protestant housework ethic. Phyllis Schlafly, author and president of the conservative pro-family group Eagle Forum, blames the women's movement for making all our houses dirtier.
"It's one thing we can blame the feminists for," she says. "Housework is degrading, it's the life of a servant, it's demeaning-that's the attitude they've left us with, and it's a shame." During a trip to Princeton University to visit her children, Schlafly saw student dorms and observed up close the horrific descent into messiness that will surely be the downfall of civilization. "I saw how people lived and it was shocking," she says.
And it's only going to get worse, experts say. Gen-Xers who have jobs and live on their own will be less likely to keep a spotless countertop, in part because they'll have less free time. A recent study found that 62 percent of Gen-Xers work more than 40 hours a week at their jobs, compared with 37 percent of young workers in 1977.
Not surprisingly, the Americans' Use of Time Project reports that men and women aged 18 to 29 spend the least amount of time on housework each week, compared with any other age group. And Jim Figura of Colgate is doubtful that the housework ethic will carry over into Gen-Y and Z. "My kids?" he asks. "They're not going to clean."
Despite such dim views of the future, Schlafly strives to set her own personal example for the youth of America, cooking dinner for herself each day and on weekends for her whole family. A recent sit-down meal for 19 at the Schlafly homestead proffered grilled steaks, corn on the cob, crispy brown potatoes, and a variety of fresh fruits.
But when it comes to housework, well, that's another story. Phyllis Schlafly, defender of a woman's right to remove lint from the clothes dryer, has a cleaning lady.