UC Berkeley press release


American workers are creating their own "time bind" by choosing overtime instead of family time

by Patricia McBroom

Berkeley -- In spite of their dreams for a more leisurely family life, American workers are to an important degree choosing the opposite -- longer hours at work.

They are not, for the most part, using company-offered alternatives to reduce work in favor of a better balanced home life, according to Arlie R. Hochschild, professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. To the contrary, many are choosing overtime. And while working mothers often feel guilty about this, they also feel ambivalent about cutting back.

Hochschild is the author of a newly published book, "Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work", based on a three-year, in-depth study of 130 people in a major American corporation.

"We're losing the battle for time at home; in fact, we're not fighting the battle," said Hochschild of the last 10 years of increasing tension between the demands of family and the demands of the workplace. "In the competition between the home and the company, the company is winning."

By joining the workforce on "male" terms, rather than pressuring men and companies to change, women are contributing to stripped-down families, often because to do otherwise would be to threaten their position at work, said Hochschild. But that is not the only reason, she found. Women are also seeking the longer hours because the workplace feels more comfortable and less stressful than their own homes, she said.

"It's a downward slope," said Hochschild. "The more time you subtract from family life, the more strained relations become, and the more strained relations become, the more people avoid home."

"In the 1970s, we were talking about men relating to children," said Hochschild, "but in the 1990s, we are talking about women succeeding on male terms at work."

Hochschild chose for her research a major American corporation known for its "family friendly" policies -- flexible and part-time work schedules, family leaves, and lots of rhetoric about life/work balance. If reduced hours were to succeed anywhere, Hochschild reasoned, it should be at a progressive company such as this one.

What she found was unexpected. Over half of working parents with children under 13 years old worked overtime; a majority worked weekends. Many times managers undermined the family friendly policies and the company's commitment was less than complete. Yet workers with flexible managers were not more likely to apply for paternity leave than workers with inflexible managers.

Money was not a sufficient explanation for why workers didn't apply for part-time work, job sharing or paternity leave either. Well-paid managers were less interested in shorter hours than their less well-paid secretaries, she said.

The children of the parents Hochschild studied at Amerco (a pseudonym) were clearly getting caught in the time bind although the sociologist did not study how the parental home deficit might harm the children.

"I don't know whether the children are being damaged," she said. "The child care workers I interviewed thought nine or 10 hours per day in child care was too long, and many parents experienced guilt."

A major finding that Hochschild did not anticipate was the extent to which home and family life had become like work to the parents she studied. The psychological demands of modern family relationships, which often include the experience of divorce and blending of families, "call for emotional skills many people don't possess," said Hochschild.

"Meanwhile, work is a far more inviting place that it used to be," said Hochschild. "We often imagine the worker as a cog in a machine of just a number. But modern management philosophies like 'total quality' -- in Fortune 500 companies at least -- are geared toward empowering the worker and making him or her feel appreciated. "That's all to the good. The downside is that under certain circumstances, the family cannot compete.

Hochschild recommends a two-pronged attack on the time bind.

As a kind of first-aid for families, she said that a new form of family therapy is needed that looks not only at the parents' own mothers and fathers, but at the role of work. "The workplace is a player in family dynamics too," she said.

Over the longer term, however, Hochschild calls for collective action aimed at countering the powerful corporate investment in creating and sustaining an ethic of long working hours.

"It is hardly prudent to rely on company executives as our architects of time," she writes. "Whatever their stated goals, whatever they believe they are doing, they are likely to exacerbate, not relieve, the time bind of their workers."

"So we need to put the topic of work hours on our political agenda and move toward collective action based largely outside of corporations."

She said a new coalition between labor unions, child advocates, feminists, government and progressive companies could bring about a new standard of shorter working hours.

"In the 19th century, we brought the 10-hour day down to eight hours. Why not bring it down to seven, or at least stop it from expanding back up to nine?"

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