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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

More Dual-Earner Couples, Working Harder Than Ever

As I mentioned above, the three accounts of the time squeeze above are not necessarily competing stories. All of them may be true. We know unquestionably, for example, that the number of dual-earner couples has increased, and continues to increase, dramatically. In 1998, there were over 30 million dual-earner households, increasing some 20% since 1986 and we are now at the point where dual-earner households outnumber breadwinner-homemaker households nearly 3-to-1. Again, the new mathematics of three jobs but only two people increasingly typifies the American experience.

Data on trends in work hours are a bit more controversial. While some, like Juliet Schor, have found substantial increases in the average work week of the typical workers, others, like John Robinson and Jerry Jacobs conclude that there has been no real increase. But looking at trends as if it is a simple, unified phenomenon may be misleading. As we know, it’s possible for averages to stay the same even while the rich get rich and the poor get poorer. And data from the General Social Survey suggest that such has been the case with time.

Data from the GSS show trends not unlike those emphasized or de-emphasized by other scholars. That is, weekly work hours have increased very modestly across all employed husbands, and have shown non-ignorable increases among employed wives.

But these individual patterns can only tell part of the story. Work hours influence entire households, not only individuals. And if you consider work hours at the household level, we see very different patterns.

In particular, there have been quite substantial increases in the work of hours of dual-earner couples. Indeed, the increase in dual-earner’s combined hours is greater than the sum of increases among working husbands and working wives. This is the case because those employed men married in dual-earner households experienced larger increases in work hours than other men. Indeed, husbands married to stay-at-home wives actually experienced a very slight decline in their work hours. This suggests that not only are their more dual-earner families today, but that these dual-earner families are also working harder than ever before. This is a story about increasing variation in work hours, which has also been documented by others, including Robert Lerman at the Urban Institute. Those households which already worked the most—that is, those with two earners—also experienced the biggest increases in work hours.

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