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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 New “Rat Race”

A second model, from economics, bears an age-old moniker, the “Rat Race” model, but represents a very recent development of economic theory, garnering attention in a recent volume of the American Economic Review. In short, this model suggests that employers frequently over-value the tendency to work hours, particularly when objective measures of productivity are hard to come by. In the absence of good measures of output volume or quality, employers look at work hours an indicator of employee “quality.” They in turn reward long hours with pay increases and advancement. This results in a situation where employees—especially those in a career-building life stage who have the possibilities of promotions ahead of them—have a great incentive to work long hours, even if they prefer some reduced hours schedule.

This model suggests that some workers may work longer hours than they would like. But it also suggests a mechanism through which the expectation of long work hours has risen—and, ironically, it’s driven by an increase in the population of workers who would prefer fewer hours. In short, an increase in the supply of such workers serves to increase the number of workers who are, at least during early career development years, “masquerading” as workers who prefer long hours, in turn “raising the bar” on the acceptable work hours for “quality” employees. Indeed, it may be that the rise of the dual-earner family has brought about just this infusion of workers with reduced hours preferences. As Rebitzer and Taylor write, “Labor markets will not adjust smoothly to the changes brought about by the rise in female labor force participation. In the absence of some intervention in the market, firms will find it difficult to provide the optimum number of short-hour jobs in response to the increasing numbers of female and male workers seeking to balance job and family responsibilities” (1995) In sum, current conditions of employment may reflect more than just an inertial “lag” in responding to changing preferences, but may also constitute a reaction against an infusion of workers with preferences to work reduced hours.

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