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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  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

The Great Structural Lag

First, sociologists like Matilda White Riley have developed the idea of a “structural lag.” She argues that social institutions—as habitualized, sanctioned and legitimized patterns of action—are resistant to change. When demographic, social or economics conditions change rapidly—as we’ve witnessed with the explosive increase in married women’s labor force participation—the relatively entrenched nature of social institutions means that a mismatch develops between existing social structures and desired or socially “optimal” practices.

In the case of paid work, we can point to, for example, how the restructuring of jobs, which occurred in the wake of the Great Depression, continues to the shape work today. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 is a case in point. Among other things, the FLSA defined the standard 40-hour work week and mandated special overtime compensation while exempting professional occupations from its purview. The FLSA is perennially touched-up but it’s character remains fundamentally unchanged over sixty years, despite both a massive shift from breadwinner/homemaker to dual-earner families and, with increasing professionalization, an increasing proportion of the labor force exempted from it’s protections. As a result of this and other forms of institutional inertia, organizational policies and expectations regarding work hours are predicated on an outdated template where privileged professionals can be assumed to have a wife taking care of home life.

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