WASHINGTON, DC -- While the U.S. work week, or hours spent working for pay by the average employee, has not significantly changed over the past 30 years, the demands of work and family are certainly colliding. According to research by sociologists, there is a growing split of the labor force into those squeezed by family and work time demands, usually at the top end of the pay scale, and those unable to find sufficient amounts of work, usually at the bottom of the pay scale. In addition, an ongoing transformation of family life also lies at the heart of the new time dilemmas facing an increasing number of Americans.
According to U.S. Census figures, the average male worked 43.5 hours a week in 1970 and 43.1 hours a week in 2000, and the average female worked 37.1 hours in 1970 and 37.0 hours in 2000. The work experience of individuals does not give a clear picture though until we shift our focus to the combined work hours of the family, where the time squeeze becomes more apparent.
Sociologists Kathleen Gerson, New York University, and Jerry Jacobs, University of Pennsylvania, found that "[c]hanges in jobs and changes in families…are separating the two-earner and single-parent households from the more traditional households, and are creating different futures for parents, especially mothers, than for workers without children at home." Their research appears in the fall 2004 issue of Contexts magazine, published by the American Sociological Association.
Most analyses of work time focus on the individual, but it is families, not isolated individuals, that typically experience time squeezes. "Even if the length of the work week had not changed at all," said Gerson and Jacobs, "the rise of families that depend on either two incomes or one parent would suffice to explain why Americans feel so pressed for time."
For married couples, the combined work week has increased from an average of about 53 hours in 1970 to 63 hours in 2000. The explanation for this increase in work hours, given that the individual person's work week has not changed much, is that 30 years ago half of all married families had only a male breadwinner. By 2000, this group sunk to one quarter. The two-earner family put in close to 82 working hours in 2000 compared to 78 hours in 1970.
"The vast majority of the change in working time over the past 30 years can thus be traced to changes in the kinds of families we live in rather than to changes in how much we work," said Gerson and Jacobs. For instance, they said, "Census Bureau data show that women headed one-fifth of all families in 2000, twice the share of female-headed households in 1970. Even though their average work week remained unchanged at 39 hours, the lack of child care and other support services leave them facing time changes at least as sharp."
Although dual-earner parents are facing greater time pressures, they cope with these pressures by cutting back on joint working time rather than time with the children. According to Census data, parents in two-income families worked 3.3 fewer hours per week than two-income families without children. There were 2.6 hours separating these two types of families in 1970. The number of combined work hours declines as the number of children under the age of 18 increases. "However, it is mothers, not fathers, who are cutting back," said the researchers. "Fathers actually work more hours when they have children at home, and their work hours increase with the number of children . . . . And while parents are putting in less time at work than their peers without children at home, they shoulder the domestic responsibilities that leave them facing clashes between work demands and family needs."
The researchers believe that the future of family well-being and gender equality depends on developing large-scale policy changes in order to meet the needs of the 21st century workers and alleviate time pressures faced by working parents. These policies should address the organization of the American work and community institutions.
"This includes revising regulations on hours of work and providing benefit protections to more workers, moving toward the norm of a shorter work week, creating more family-supportive workplaces that offer both job flexibility and protections for employed parents, and developing a wider array of high quality, affordable child care options," suggest Gerson and Jacobs.
These policies may not be a cure-all, but taken together, they offer a comprehensive approach toward narrowing the gender gap in the workplace and alleviating time pressures confronting a growing number of American workers and their families, the authors maintain.
Gerson and Jacobs are the authors of The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2004). To download a PDF version of their Contexts article see http://www.contextsmagazine.org/content_sample_v3-4.php.
The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.
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