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  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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The Time-Squeeze in American Families:
From Causes to Solutions

Marin Clarkberg
Cornell University

From Preferences to Behavior

Looking at the data in this way helps to bring a several questions into focus. Two of those I’ll address here. First, who is it that is experiencing the time-squeeze, working substantially longer hours than they might prefer, working full-time when they prefer a part-time schedule, or working over-time when they’d like to stick with the standard 40 hour work week?

Second, how are preferences translated into behavioral outcomes over time? Are these preferences meaningful indicators, in that they actually predict behavioral changes? When are people able to successfully attain what they want? And, especially, are some preferences actually “easier” to meet than others?

The results of our analyses are available in detail in a Cornell Careers Institute working paper, but I will highlight some of the key findings in brief here.

First, for women, family context matters a lot, which may come as no surprise. Most notably, children, and especially children under the age of five, are associated with feeling overworked. But family matters in more subtle ways, as well. Women who are married to professional husbands or other men who tend to work long hours, for example, are more likely to feel like they need to cut back on their own jobs. This is important given both the professionalization of our occupational structure, and, as I documented above, the increase in work hours among men in dual-earner households. Even it if is husbands who put the long hours into their careers, wives feel the pressure of his lack of time for family life, and respond by wanting to cut back themselves. Among husbands, the time-squeeze is a less a result of family context—for example, wives’ work doesn’t contribute to husbands’ feelings of overwork—but largely reflects the reality that they frequently work well over the “standard” 40 hours work week.

Our second analysis—which is more an analysis of process—how do preferences translate into behavior over time highlights the how it is we arrive at a situation in which people are not working what they say they would like to. Recalling the topographical maps above, what process make the images so different? How is it that fewer than 1 in 10 couples prefer the traditional breadwinner-homemaker paradigm, but almost 1 in 4 couples in the sample end up fitting that model? At the other end of the spectrum, how is that only 14% of couples say that they would like to fit the “dual-career” mold (with each working full-time or more), while in fact almost 30% actually do? In essence, we ask: why don’t couples work the hours that they prefer?

Importantly, I findings indicate that preferences do matter, in that they do predict behavior. People who say that they want to work more are more likely to increase their work hours and people who say that they want to work less are more likely to decrease their work hours. However, even while that association is strong, it is also clear that some preferences are easier to meet than others. Easiest of all to attain, with no employer input at all, is simply not working. Compared to those who preferred regular full-time hours, both husbands and wives who wanted to be out of the labor force are far more likely to meet their desired end. Also likely to have few problems meeting their goal are husbands who prefer to work more than the standard 35-45 hour work week. Men who actually seek to work very long hours are apparently easily accommodated by their employers; they are nearly twice as likely to meet their preferences as husbands who wanted to work the standard full-time work week.

But in stark contrast to the happy outcomes, it appears to be next to impossible to meet the preference for any kind of part-time work. Both wives and especially husbands who prefer part-time work are far less likely to actually get part-time work when compared to those who prefer and find full-time work. Herein is the essential contrast between the topographical images above: the many couples who prefer some type of part-time arrangement are frequently faced between a rock and a hard place: 0 versus 40 or more hours of work each week.

In short, there is a widespread preference for part-time work in married couples, but for some reason, there these preferences are not being met; the preference for part-time work is not being translated into behavioral outcomes in the long run. Why?

Two models, one from sociology, the other from economics, suggests why employers have failed to accommodate preferences for part-time work.

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