The Time-Squeeze in American Families:
From Causes to Solutions
Looking at the data in this way helps to bring a several questions into
focus. Two of those Ill 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 theyd like to stick with the standard 40 hour work
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
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
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
contextfor example, wives work doesnt contribute to
husbands feelings of overworkbut largely reflects the reality that
they frequently work well over the standard 40 hours work week.
Our second analysiswhich is more an analysis of processhow 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 dont 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.