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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

Why Have We Become So Rushed?

What has caused this increased sense of being pressed for time? There are several possible answers to this questions, and I’ve outlined three answers here. These are not necessarily competing hypotheses, but they clearly highlight different themes or elements of this story, which may or may not be working together.

First, of course, is the contention that we simply work too much—or, more specifically, that work hours have increased over time. This is probably the most familiar account of the time-squeeze, both because of important books such as Hochschild’s The Time Bind and Schor’s The Overworked American and because many people in dual-earner couples energetically speak to this theme themselves, as they recount doing a job that entails the responsibilities of two or three employees before restructuring. Still, this story is somewhat controversial, as some scholars fail to find a real increase in the average work week with the best data sets.

The second story highlights the fact that even if hours of work haven’t changed, the fact that workers are increasingly married to each other—if married at all—means that relatively few workers can enjoy the services of a full-time, stay-at-home spouse. This is what Kathleen Christenson has called the new mathematics of the family: for dual-earner families with kids it’s two parents and three jobs, two paid, and one unpaid. Clearly, the lack of the stay-at-home partner may in itself make people increasingly harried, even if they, in fact, work fewer hours than their fathers did.

A third and related story has to do less with work hours themselves and more to do with preferences for work hours—that is, what people want. The story of preferences is an important one because preferences lie at the center of the whole definition of being time-squeezed: that is, working more than one would like to work. Clearly, there are two variables in the equation—actual behavior, on the one hand (which, as I’ve indicated, has received considerable attention), and, on the other hand, preferences. It may be the case, for example, that work hours preferences have declined over time, especially given the rise of dual-earner families and the three jobs for two people. Such a decline in work hours preferences could explain the rise in the time-squeeze just as well as a change in actual behavior.

Unfortunately, however, we don’t have data on trends in work hour preferences. Yet, the question of work hours preferences remains largely unexplored. Much of my own recent research, some of which I’ll describe here, has made some preliminary steps into this terrain, documenting, first, what it is that people say that they want and, second, how well their preferences are met. That is, how preferences interact with the institutionalized structures of work and thereby result in certain behavioral outcomes.

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