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Time is of the essence

A new book examines the relationship between working time and social inequality

The Time Divide:
Work, Family and Gender Inequality

By Jerry A. Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson
Harvard University Press, 2004

Review and commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

Imagine, if you will, that every family functions a kind of cooperative where individuals pool their practical and emotional assets, such as time, energy, labor, skills, money, mobility, leisure, love, and empathy. Needless to say, family members big and small inevitably pool their needs as well. Some— young children, frail elderly, the disabled— may have more urgent needs than others, but every person in a family has irreducible needs. As a baseline, we all need shelter, food, water, emotional connection, rest and care. In complex, economically developed societies, most families depend on a lot of other things to get by— jobs, health care, transportation, education, public utilities, communication technology, clean laundry, and various household appliances, for example. And wherever they happen to live, parents are expected to contribute a sizable portion of their practical and emotional inventory to transmitting life skills, social customs and cultural values to the next generation.

Some shared assets, such as love and affection, are renewable and, ideally, limitless. Others, like money and energy, can expand or contract depending on the vagaries of circumstance. And some resources may be exchanged to get more of others, such as paying someone to provide housecleaning services or child care to allow some family members to allocate their labor differently or enjoy more leisure.

On the other hand, some of the resources in the family stockpile are finite. Labor can be exhausted if the need for sufficient rest and care are not met, energy generally declines with age, and the amount of time each person has at his or her disposal is permanently fixed. There really are only so many hours in a day, and for working families, there are fequently competing demands for every minute of it. We’re constantly reminded that “time is money,” but money isn’t time— no amount of purchasing power can stretch the temporal envelope of the 24-hour day. When families are forced to cope with a time deficit, they usually resort to drawing on other resources to make sure nothing important falls through the cracks, or they try to utilize their energy more efficiently in order to do more in less time. They scramble, they reprioritize, they barter. Workers— including unpaid caregivers— may also lower their expectations about which personal needs are irreducible so that things like a good night’s sleep, daily exercise, regular meals and uninterrupted down time start looking more like luxuries.

Thanks to the recent explosion of media reporting on the work-life dilemmas of the professional class, we’ve come to accept the idea that— across the board— Americans are overworked and stressed to the breaking point. We’ve even been led to believe that, a) this is the inevitable outcome of living in an advanced technological society, and b) at some level, it’s good for us. As sociologists Jerry A. Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson note in The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Inequality, in the not so distant past an abundance of leisure time was the hallmark of wealth and privilege. These days, the authors remark, being chronically overextended is considered something of a status symbol. As they mapped the contours of the contemporary “time famine,” Jacobs and Gerson discovered that this attitudinal flip-flop might be grounded in a recent demographic trend: today, the workers most likely to put in extra-long hours on the job tend to be upwardly-mobile professionals with very high levels of education— the best and brightest. Yet Jacobs and Gerson also found that a growing segment of the American workforce is critically underemployed, and that the nation’s deepening time crisis— which they define as the time divide— is linked to other intransigent social problems, including income and gender inequality.

Other recent studies of the way Americans use their time have yielded contradictory results and conflicting theories about why we might be devoting more hours to paid work. In The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1993), Juliet Schor argued that a steady increase in working hours over the last 20 years is fueled by the culture of consumerism; Americans are working harder, she reasoned, because we want more money to buy more stuff. Arlie Russell Hochschild (The Time Bind, 1997) suggested that parents in dual-earner couples might be logging in more time at the office to avoid the general chaos and emotional messiness of home life. And a time diary study conducted by John Robinson and Geoffrey Godey (Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time, 1999) found that at the end of the 20th century, it was leisure time, not working time, that was on the rise.

In fact, when Jacobs and Gerson analyzed historic data on working hours, they discovered that the length of the average workweek has remained fairly stable for both male and female workers since 1960, with men and women clocking in around 42.5 and 35 hours, respectively. However, the authors contend that comparisons based on individual averages are misleading because they fail to reflect a significant increase in the number of hours of paid work per household— particularly in households with young children, since fewer families are willing or able to subsidize the career of a single earner with the unpaid labor of a full-time caregiver— and the growing number of workers who work either excessively long or relatively short workweeks. As a result, more workers are feeling overworked and would like to work less— while at the other end of the time spectrum, more workers are having trouble making ends meet and would prefer jobs with more hours and more benefits.

Worker preference and working hours

Jacobs and Gerson conclude that “choice” has very little to do with how much time workers spend on the job— in fact, studies suggest that as few as 1 out of every 3 workers feels satisfied with the number of hours they work. “Many forces are promoting a bifurcation of working time, and it would be dangerously misleading to attribute all of the difference to matters of personal taste— a view implying that the longer work schedules of the highly educated represent neither a mystery or a social problem,” the authors write. “Personal taste may play a part, but there is a strong reason to conclude that this difference between the overworked and the underworked is far more than a simple reflection of workers’ preferences.” Jacobs and Gerson argue that structural factors have a far greater influence on the lopsided distribution of working time:

Because employers are not required to pay overtime to professionals who work more than 40 hours per week, and because extra hours of work by exempt employees do not cost additional wages at all, employers face no strong incentive to limit such workers to a forty-hour workweek.

The structure and distribution of benefits, such as health care and other service, also give employers incentives to divide the labor force. By hiring part-time workers with no benefits and simultaneously pressuring some full-time employees— especially salaried workers— to work longer hours, work organizations can lower their total compensation costs. The unintended consequence of these cost-limiting strategies is a division of the workforce into those putting in very long workweeks and those putting in relatively short ones.

...Those putting in longer workweeks may face time squeezes and domestic conundrums, but those putting in shorter ones likely face other difficulties, such as insufficient income and blocked work opportunities. If so, then working time is linked to other social and economic inequalities, and overwork is only one among a more complicated set of economic and demographic shifts.

They then propose that some of the most pressing social dilemmas in the U.S. can be framed as a series of overlapping time divides, each of which can be isolated but is ultimately compounded by the others:

First, the transformation of the American household has produced a work-family divide in which workers face mounting conflicts between home and the workplace. Second, a growing bifurcation of the labor force has contributed to a growing occupational divide, in which some jobs demand very long days and others do not. Third, as workers are increasingly channeled into jobs with either very high or relatively low time demands, we have also found a growing aspiration divide, in which workers experience a gap between their actual and their preferred working time. Of course, the parenting divide also continues to place parents in a disadvantaged and precarious position, separating them from and even pitting them against childless workers. And last, but certainly not least, the persistence of unequal opportunities— for balancing parenting and paid work and for finding promising and flexible jobs— underscores a persisting gender divide, which leaves women and men facing different options and dilemmas. (Italics in original.)

Certainly, many of the more troubling aspects of the contemporary motherhood problem— such as why its effects penalize mothers differently depending on their location in the socioeconomic hierarchy— fit neatly into Jacobs and Gerson’s time divide model. Mothers in high-performance professions are presented with the untenable alternative of working 50-plus hours a week or sacrificing earnings potential and occupational status for more family-friendly schedules. When fathers are required to put in excessively long work weeks, married mothers may decide to trade in the crushing “second shift” of domestic chores for full-time unpaid caregiving— and according to Ann Crittenden in The Price of Motherhood, moms who go this route stand to forfeit as much as a million dollars in potential earnings and benefits.

Mothers in every occupational tier are forced to negotiate a devil’s dilemma of options— which will their family be more able to tolerate: a time squeeze, or a money squeeze? (Although if they happen to be single mothers, their families will quite often be squeezed for both, no matter how hard they try to strike a balance.) But Jacobs and Gerson emphasize that the time divide is more than a mothers’ issue:

The difficulties of integrating family and work are not confined to women and are not simply a ‘woman’s problem.’ The conflicts have structural roots, and they emerge from the institutional conflicts that confront any worker who must blend family responsibilities and the demands of a rigid and encroaching job. If more women experience these conflicts, or if women experience them more intensely, that is because women are more likely to face these difficult circumstances.

The first five chapters of The Time Divide are data geek’s dream, with a juicy assortment of graphs and tables tracking historic trends in American’s working time and detailing their experience of overwork. Some of the authors' findings confirm well-known phenomena, such as that women with children tend to work fewer hours than their childless peers, while married men’s working hours actually increase slightly when they become fathers. The study also reveals that only a small fraction of parents in dual-earner households have a combined working time of at least 100 hours a week, although the number of parenting couples who work extremely long hours rose from 8 percent in 1970 to 12 percent in 2000. Yet in the final analysis, the authors agree that whatever is fueling the rise in working time, “it is not concentrated among parents. The move toward more work involvement, whether among men or women, thus does not appear to reflect a desire among parents to escape the contemporary difficulties of child rearing.” Jacobs and Gerson constantly reiterate that individual preferences for longer or shorter work hours have very little to do with the evolution of the time divide: “We cannot assume that workers’ choices are merely a reflection of their own personal preferences. In a myriad of ways, the world of work is organized and structured by forces far beyond any worker’s control.”

Shrinking the time divide

The final section of the book, which concentrates on policy solutions, should be of special interest to those seeking social and economic justice for mothers. Chapter 6— which is co-authored with Janet C. Gornick— offers an appraisal of American working time in a cross-national perspective. In particular, the authors found that women’s working patterns varied across all the countries they studied, and that “important differences remain between employed women and their male counterparts:”

Across all advanced, postindustrial societies, women continue to face substantial differentials in labor participation rates, working hours and income that grow even larger among parents. These inequalities, which are to some extent rooted in women’s disproportionate responsibilities for caregiving and family work, have enduring consequences that contribute to longer-term inequalities in earnings and reinforce patterns of gender segregation in jobs and occupations.

Clearly, cultural factors have as least as much influence as policy provisions when it comes to eliminating barriers to women’s equality in the workplace. For example, the authors mention that in countries with a high proportion of part-time women workers, many women are pushed into part-time work regardless of their preference for full-time employment. Activist mothers in search of policy reform should take note that new regulations and benefits to help mothers integrate paid work and caregiving will not automatically assure gender equality. “A cross-national perspective enriches our understanding of the situation of American workers and also provides some lessons about the possibilities for achieving greater work-family integration as well as more gender equality,” the authors of The Time Divide write. “In the search for a model country, however, these twin goals seem elusive; indeed, they also seem to be in conflict.”

Even if the present political climate in the U.S. was amenable to enacting legislation to support working families— which it most emphatically is not— throwing policy solutions at the motherhood problem will not take us very far until we manage to extract caregiving from its marginal status as “women’s work” and reposition it as a central social concern. In particular, European examples suggest that part-time parity may not be the panacea some supporters of the emerging mothers’ movement imagine it to be. Unless there is a profound cultural shift within and outside of our workplaces— and equal numbers of men avail themselves of the opportunity to work part-time with proportionate pay and benefits— protections for part-time work may simply create another substandard employment track for women who mother.

With that in mind, Jacobs and Gerson highlight a selection of policy recommendations that augment the typical short list of solutions proposed by some work-life researchers and mothers’ advocates (i.e., paid parental and sick leave, affordable, quality child care, and workplace flexibility for all workers; part time parity; caps on mandatory overtime; universal health care and a decent minimum wage). Specifically, the authors call for a 35 hour workweek, revisions to the Fair Labor Standards Act to make professionals and other mid- and upper-level workers eligible for overtime pay, and mandating paid benefits for all workers in proportion to their hours of work. This array of reforms, the authors believe, would make it more costly for employers to either overwork or underwork their employees— and would be less likely to reinforce gender and class inequalities than work-enabling strategies alone. While the authors concede that their proposed initiatives may be a tough sell, they stress there is always room for optimism: “While these proposals may seem out of reach and impractical to those who assume the past must dictate the future, a historical perspective suggests that what may seem impractical and impossible today may be seen as indispensable and inevitable tomorrow.”

In their chapter on “Bridging the Time Divide,” Jacobs and Gerson provide a valuable overview of different perspectives on the time crisis and its potential remedies, from the self-help approach to the proposition that the free market can and will (eventually) deliver the best cure for the nation’s overwork epidemic. The authors also mount a compelling defense of their own argument that nothing short of a balanced combination of protective legislation and work enabling policies, coupled with family-friendly working time regulations, will do the trick. In their final chapter, Jacobs and Gerson present a concise run-down of the groups most likely to oppose legislative action aimed at narrowing the time divide. They suggest the greatest resistance will come from economic conservatives— who are poised to fight stronger labor regulations and policy agendas requiring a redistribution of “public” resources to support “private” needs— as well as cultural conservatives (who tend to view gender equity and diverse family forms as socially dangerous and/or morally offensive) and militant proponents of the child-free movement, who have been hostile to any corrective measures that smack of special treatment for “breeders.”

Shrinking the time divide may be an uphill battle, but it’s obvious from Jacobs and Gerson’s research that a significant number of workers are reaching the limits of their ability to sustain a positive balance between the practical assets and irreducible needs in the family resource pool. Until the U.S. learns to treat the time problem— in all its economic and cultural complexity— as a serious social issue rather than a private inconvenience, more and more families will hit the point where the center cannot hold. If we hope to continue our progress toward a more humane and just society, we need to take steps to ensure that mothers and fathers— and all American workers— have time on their side.

mmo : April 2002

Related articles:

Overwork in America
MMO summary of a report from the Families and Work Institute with links to the full executive summary.

It’s official: women do more housework, child care than men
Results from the first American Time Use Survey

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