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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

Work Hours Patterns and Preferences in Married Couples

So our first task with these data is descriptive. How much do American families work? As I have indicated above, it’s important to look and the work hours of both husbands and wives and how they relate to one another. To the end, we’ve created a graphic representation of the joint distribution of husbands and wives work hours. This is a sort of topographical map. In this figure, darker shades represent a high frequency of incidence, and white spaces indicate that fewer than one-half of one percent of couples are represented in the cross-tabulation.

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of this graph is that much of the space is white. In fact, most possible combinations of work hours did not occur with any frequency. Primarily, couples are located at four corners of the space, which primarily represent the various permutations of either not being employed versus or being employed full-time (or more). The mass at the lower left, for example, represents couples in which both partners are not working, and these couples are primarily retired couples. The dark area going up the left side represents the traditional breadwinner-homemaker pattern, where the wife is working zero hours and the husband is working forty or more hours, and the large blob towards the middle represents the increasingly prevalent dual-earner partnership, where both partners are working full-time or more.

The void between these points indicates that the incidence of part-time work is rare in contemporary married couples. While a few wives work part-time while their husbands work full-time, there are extremely few cases of husbands working part-time hours. Indeed, what we find are couples in which both partners are working full-time or more (1 in 4 couples), couples in which the husband is working full-time or more while the wife is not employed (also 1 in 4 couples), and couples in which both partners are not employed (these 15% of couples are primarily retirees). We also find a handful of couples, primarily in their 20s, in which the wife is working full-time and the husband is not employed, perhaps because he is enrolled in school. Between these four points there is an overwhelming lack of variety in couples’ work patterns.

The next figure, illustrating the joint distribution of work hours preferences, reveals a considerably different picture.

Most notably, there is considerably more variation in preferences than in the analogous figure of work hours behavior. Where the first figure emphasize the black and white extremes of working full-time or not at all, this figure is more about shades of gray, in a literal and a figurative sense. For example, in this figure of work hour preferences, fully 1 in 6 couples indicate that they would prefer an arrangement in which both partners worked full time—a substantially greater percentage than the 1 in 50 couples who actually do work such schedules. The contrast between these figures begins to hint at the strong influence of the structure of jobs and workplaces, exhibiting little ability to actually meet workers preferences for work hours and instead constraining work options to institutionalized definitions of a full-time job—an argument I’ll deal with in fuller detail in a moment.

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