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  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Opinions and views in these papers are those expressed by the author(s). They are not to be taken as expressions of support for particular positions by the Department of Labor. Please do not cite these papers without prior permission of the author(s).


Robert I. Lerman
Stefanie R. Schmidt

The Urban Institute
Washington, D.C.

II. Trends in Work and Family, Health Insurance, Pensions

The complications embedded in efforts to combine work and family are not a new phenomenon. Throughout the first half of the century, it was mainly low-income and/or black women who faced the biggest struggle balancing work and family. These women often remained in the labor force after the birth of a child because they could not afford to quit working. Women married to middle- and upper-income men typically did not work for pay while their children were young, but waited to reenter the labor force at least until their children were school aged (Klerman and Leibowitz, 1994). Few children lived in single-parent families.

Since the 1960s, several demographic trends have changed the structure of the American family and the way that parents balance work and family responsibilities. Women married to men at all income levels have increased rapidly their participation in the labor force, with the most rapid growth among college-educated women married to relatively high-income men. The majority of women now return to paid work within a year of the birth of a child. The rising divorce rate and the growing prevalence of children born to unmarried mothers means that many children live in single-parent families.

Working parents, especially working mothers, report a great deal more stress in their lives than other workers. Journalists and academics argue that the very structure of the workplace contributes to that stress; few jobs allow workers the flexibility of dealing with family responsibilities during normal business hours. Some employers have adopted policies to make the workplace more “family-friendly,” including flex-time, job sharing, generous parental leave following the birth of a child, and on-site child care. Evidence on the success of these programs in reducing stress is mixed. A rising share of workers are choosing self-employment, consulting, temporary work, or other forms of contingent work, which give them more flexibility in balancing work and family responsibilities. Moreover, an increasing share of men and women are providing assistance to elderly relatives. Women provide the majority of eldercare, and many providing eldercare are part of the so-called “sandwich generation,” caring for children and elderly relatives at the same time.

Most Workers Do Not Have Children

In order to put a discussion of work and family in perspective, it is important to note that most workers presently do not live in households with their own children under 18. Although most women do have children at some point in their lives, only 40 percent of the female labor force and 36.2 of the male labor force live in a household with their own children under age 18 (See Table 3 and Table 4). In addition, a relatively small share of workers live with their own small children. 16.4 percent of female workers and 16.5 percent of male workers live with at least one child under age six, and 9.1 percent of female workers and 9.8 percent of male workers live with at least one child under age three.

Table 3: Percent of Women in the Labor Force in Various Types of Families: Second Quarter of 1998

(Text Only)

Living Arrangements

Percent of female labor force

Percent of female full-time workers

Own children under age 18



Own Children under age 6



Own Children under age 3



Married, spouse present with children under age 18



Divorced, separated or widowed and own Children under 18



Never married and own children under 18



Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, unpublished tabulations.

Table 4: Percent of Men in the Labor Force in Various Types of Families: Second Quarter of 1998

(Text Only)

Living Arrangements

Percent of male labor force

Percent of male full-time workers

Own Children under age 18



Own Children under age 6



Own Children under age 3



Married, spouse present with children under age 18



Divorced, separated, or widowed and own children under 18



Never married and own children under 18



Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, unpublished tabulations.

Table 3 and Table 4 also show that single parents comprise a relatively small share of the labor force; 7.2 percent of working women were ever married (divorced, widowed, or separated) and had children under 18, and 4.7 percent of working women were never married and had children under 18. For men, single parenthood was much less common. 1.9 percent of male workers were ever married with children under 18, and one percent were never married with children under 18.

Growth in Married Women’s Labor Force Participation

Part of the growing concern over balancing work and families is driven by the growth of dual-career couples with children. Women married to high-wage, college-educated men have witnessed the largest increase in labor force participation since the late 1960s. The labor force participation rate of the wives of men in the highest wage quintile increased 16.6 percent between 1969 and 1989. The wives of men in the middle wage quintile increased their labor force participation rate by 11.7 percent, and wives of men in the bottom wage quintile increased their labor force participation rate by 6.9 percent (Coleman and Pencavel, 1993b).

Women’s labor force participation has grown in part because women are taking less time out of the labor force after the birth of a child. Since the 1970s, mothers of infants have rapidly increased their labor force participation. By 1995, 55 percent of women who had had a child in the last year were in the labor force, almost double the 1976 participation rate of 31 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998). Today, mothers face the tradeoff between work and family even when their children are infants. In the 1970s and 1980s, most women did not return to the labor market until their children were in preschool; in the 1950s and 1960s, most mothers waited until their children reached elementary school to return to the labor force (Klerman and Leibowitz, 1994). In addition, the hours of work for employed women with children under the age of six have grown; the average employed white woman with at least one child under the age of six worked 1,487 hours in 1970 and 1,638 hours in 1988. College-educated women accounted for nearly all of the increase in the annual hours of work for mothers of young children conditional on employment (Coleman and Pencavel, 1993b).

Working mothers with infants face difficulties that working mothers of older children do not. First, breast feeding has become more prevalent, but few workplaces provide facilities for breast pumping and storage of breast milk. Second, infant care is expensive and difficult to find. Third, the sleep deprivation that comes with having a baby can make work more difficult.

Growth in Single-Parent Families and Single Mothers’ Labor Force Participation

Single parents face special challenges in balancing work and family. Between 1970 and 1997, single-female-headed families increased from 17 percent to 27 percent of all families with children, and single-father-headed families increased from 1 to 5 percent of families (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998).

This section will address issues related to single mothers, since they are the vast majority of single-parent families. Women can become single mothers because of separation, divorce, or because they were unmarried when they gave birth to a child. The divorce rate more than doubled between 1966 and 1977 (from 10 to 21 divorces per 1,000 married women per year) and has remained relatively stable since. Over 40 percent of all existing marriages are expected to end in divorce (National Center for Health Statistics, 1998). Non-marital births as a percent of all births have grown quite rapidly since the 1960s, rising from 5.3 percent in 1960 to 30.1 percent in 1992. The groups that experienced the largest increases in non-marital birth rates were 15- to 24-year-old women and black women.

Since 1992, the labor force participation rate of never-married mothers has grown enormously. Historically, never-married mothers participated in the labor force at low levels and often relied on AFDC. But since 1996, approximately 1 million never-married mothers have left the welfare rolls and entered the labor market. The labor force participation rate of never-married mothers rose from 53 percent in 1992 to 60 percent in 1996 and reached 70 percent in the second quarter of 1998. These increases in labor force participation were due to the combination of federal welfare reform legislation, which established time limits for the receipt of benefits for the vast majority of recipients, and a booming labor market (Bishop, 1998).

Historically, divorced and separated mothers have participated in the labor market at much higher rates than mothers with a spouse present and never-married mothers. Recently, the gap has narrowed. As of the second quarter of 1998, 77 percent of divorced and separated mothers were in the labor force, compared with 70 percent of mothers with spouse present and 70 percent of never-married mothers.

Unmarried mothers living in poverty often face particular difficulties managing their work and family responsibilities. Because of the lack of affordable child care, these women often must place their children in poor-quality care. States do provide some subsidized child care for former TANF recipients and other poor or near-poor women, but the programs in several large states have long waiting lists and cannot provide subsidies to all who apply (Long et al., 1998). In addition, women who rely on public transportation often face long and logistically difficult trips getting from home to child care and work.

Are Americans Working Longer Hours Than They Did in the Past?

One debate about work and family issues concerns whether work hours have grown in recent decades. Juliet Schor, in her 1991 best-selling book, The Overworked American, declared that workers were working longer hours than they had in the past, and that long work hours were robbing workers of satisfying lives. In 1997, Robinson and Godbey argued that Americans were actually working less than they did in the 1960s. Because individuals were also doing less housework and childcare, Robinson and Godbey found a net increase in leisure.

The increase in leisure that Robinson and Godbey describe is due to the rise in early retirement for workers in their 50s, and the delay of childbearing and marriage for workers in their 20s and 30s. The vast majority of married couples with children are spending more total time in paid work than they did in 1979 or 1989. Husbands worked an average of 2,096 hours in 1979 and 2,159 hours in 1994. Wives worked an average of 581 hours in 1979 and 1,168 hours in 1994 (Economic Policy Institute, 1998).

Table 5 shows the work hours of married men and women according to the percentile of work hours of the husband. With the exception of husbands in the lowest and third fifth of work hours, husbands worked more annual hours in 1994 than they did in 1979. Men in the top 5 percent of work hours witnessed the largest increase in work hours, from 2,490 in 1979 to 2,615 in 1994. With the exception of the wives of men in the top 5 percent of work hours, wives worked substantially more hours in 1994 than they did in 1979. The husbands in the top of the work hours distribution are typically college-educated men married to college-educated women (Coleman and Pencavel, 1993a). Therefore, it is college-educated dual-career couples who are facing the biggest decline in nonwork hours.

Table 5: Annual Work Hours of Husbands and Wives with at Least One Child

Percentile of Husbands’ Work Hours
(Text Only)


Bottom fifth

Second fifth

Middle fifth

Fourth fifth

80-95 percentile

Top 5 percent

Entire sample

Husbands’ Average Annual Work Hours

























Wives’ Average Annual Work Hours

























Source: Economic Policy Institute DataZone, 1998. Sample includes married couples with at least one child and one spouse between the ages of 25 and 54. Families with zero earnings were excluded.

Husbands in the lowest fifth of annual work hours actually experienced a decline in work hours, from 1,678 working in 1979 to 1,607 working in 1994. Men in the bottom of the work hours distribution are likely low-skilled men, who have decreased their labor force participation rates and their work hours in response to the marked decline in their wages (Juhn and Murphy, 1997).

When paid work and unpaid work are added together, on average, men and women spend equal amounts of time on work. Men spend more hours working for pay than women do, and women spend more time doing housework and child care (Barnett and Shen, 1997).

The struggle to juggle work and family likely takes a toll on the emotional health of parents—particularly mothers. In a recent survey of workers, 38 percent of mothers and 19 percent of fathers said they felt nervous and stressed out often or very often. Similarly, 48 percent of mothers and 35 percent of fathers responded that they were often or very often tired when getting up in the morning. Thirty percent of mothers and 23 percent of fathers registered the same responses when asked if they felt emotionally drained from their work (Galinsky et al., 1998).

Shortage of Quality Child Care

As women’s labor force participation has grown, the demand for child care has also grown. A recent study found that 56 percent of mothers with children under age five said that finding affordable child care was a serious problem for them (U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, 1998). The shortage of quality is particularly acute for infants, many of whom are placed in care that is physically dangerous to them. Many parents are forced to miss work when a child becomes sick because they lack backup care.

There is also a severe shortage of child care available on the evenings and weekends. Nearly one-fifth of workers worked nonstandard hours in 1991, and women comprised one-third of those working nonstandard shifts. Service sector jobs requiring these nonstandard work hours are among the fastest growing (U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, 1998).

Recent research has shown that poor-quality child care could ultimately take a toll on children. Research on the brain development of children shows that the first three years of life are key in developing a child’s full intellectual and emotional potential. Poor-quality care reduces a child’s future cognitive abilities and emotional health (Galinsky et al., 1998).


The projected growth in the share of the population older than age 65 means that a growing share of adults will spend time caring for their relatives. Americans are now living longer lives than ever before, but many of their later years are spent in poor health, with the need of assistance from family, friends, or health care workers. Many working adults must also care for elderly relatives. In 1997, one-quarter of workers had provided special assistance to someone 65 or older within the last year, while 13 percent had done so in the last month. One-fifth of workers had cared for both elderly relatives and children within the last year. Those who do care for elderly relatives spend an average of 11 hours per week doing so. Women do more eldercare than men, and studies show that women often reduce their work hours in response to taking on the responsibility of eldercare.

Can Firms Help Their Employees Balance Work and Family Responsibilities?

Many firms offer policies that aim to help workers balance work and family responsibilities. In a 1992 survey, 90 percent of workers said they had access to family sick leave, 57 percent have access to job sharing, 47 percent can take extended lunch breaks, 44 percent have the ability to work more hours one day and fewer the next day, 29 percent can choose flextime, and 24 percent have the ability to work at home on a regular basis (Galinsky et al., 1996). While few small firms offer assistance with child care and eldercare, many Fortune 1000 firms do; 55 percent of Fortune 1000 firms offer child care resources and referral, 21 percent offer eldercare resources and referral, and 13 percent offer on-site child care.

Some family-friendly policies, such as flexible time, parental leave, and dependent care assistance, have little impact on parental stress (Galinsky et al., 1998). The take-up rates of policies that reduce work hours, such as work sharing and flextime, tend to be quite low because workers fear that reducing their work hours will hurt their careers. Anecdotal evidence indicates that workers who opt for flexible or reduced work hours often are promoted at much lower rates than their colleagues (National Public Radio, 1998). The programs that have the highest take-up rates are those which enable employees to increase their work hours: on-site child care, child and elder care referral services, and emergency backup child care services (Stone, 1997).

The job attributes that were most correlated with low parental stress were not policies explicitly targeted toward families, but attributes that improve overall job satisfaction. Employed parents experienced the least conflict between their work and family responsibilities when they were in jobs that had greater autonomy, that were less demanding and hectic, and that offered greater job security (Galinsky et al., 1998).

Anecdotal evidence indicates that some employers are finding that workers that lead balanced lives are more productive. Those firms are aiming to improve employee satisfaction by increasing communication between workers and bosses, improving scheduling flexibility, and recognizing workers’ needs to balance work and family (Wall Street Journal, July 1998). Such policies are not aimed at a small subset of workers who choose flextime, but are transforming their entire work culture. Xerox reported a 10 percent productivity increase when implementing flexible scheduling and Johnson & Johnson reported a 50 percent decline in absenteeism among employees who used flexible work options and family leave policies (Price Waterhouse, 1998).

Several large consulting and accounting firms are using more flexible work scheduling as a method of recruiting and retaining workers in a tight labor market (National Public Radio, 1998; Price Waterhouse, 1998). At the same time, consulting and accounting firms are trying to change their workaholic culture to make flexible scheduling more feasible.

Two policies, flextime and the four-day compressed work week, appear to be effective in increasing the amount of time parents spend with children. Some researchers have also argued that increasing the amount of paid paternal leave would increase fathers’ involvement with their children. The liberality of companies’ paternity leave policies is a predictor of the length of parental leave. Fathers’ involvement with older children is positively correlated with the amount of time they spent with their children as infants. Researchers argue that if fathers spend more time with their newly born children, they are more likely to bond with their children, and spend more time with children as they grow older. Many companies do not offer paid paternity leave, although the 1996 Federal Medical and Family Leave Act does require all firms with more than 50 employees to offer two weeks of unpaid maternity or paternity leave. The vast majority (75 to 91 percent) of fathers take time off following the birth of a child, but the average length of leave averages only five days.

Because relatively few jobs provide the autonomy and flexibility that allow workers to balance work and family effectively, some workers, especially women, have likely turned to contingent employment and self-employment. Contingent workers include workers who are employed by temporary agencies and other workers whose implicit or explicit contracts with their employers define their jobs as temporary. Women who are self-employed or contingent workers typically do not work full-time full-year, but vary their schedule over the year and over the week to meet family demands. The majority of women who are self-employed, on-call, or independent contractors enter into these situations voluntarily, and many state that they work in such arrangements for family reasons (Economic Policy Institute, 1997). The female self-employment rate has grown from 4.1 percent in 1990 to 6.7 percent in 1994 (Devine, 1994). Nearly 3 percent of the female workforce is in temporary, on-call, or contract company jobs (Economic Policy Institute, 1997).

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