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3 - work and family


Eighty-five percent of wage and salaried workers live with a family member and have family responsibilities off the job.34 (See box 3.2.) Due to the increase in the number of women working and an increase in the percentage of women working full time,35 most families have had to change how they cope with their work and family responsibilities, particularly the demands on their time. (See box 3.3.) Women in married-couple families (with both spouses age 25 to 54) have significantly increased their hours at work over the last 20 years. In 1998, almost half of all wives worked 35 or more hours; slightly over one-third of wives with children under 6 worked these hours.36

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The work-and-family balancing act

For most American families, time available for nonwork or family responsibilities has decreased. In 1970, dual-earner couples were 39 percent of all married couples with children; they are now up to 64 percent. 37 Married couples averaged 14 more hours per week working in 1998 than in 1969—that is 700 more hours a year at work. Similar increases were found for couples with or without children; however, the greatest increase in hours of work per week was for couples with children under the age of three.38 In addition, the percentage of dual-income married families (in which both spouses were age 25 to 54) who work more than 40 hours a week has increased significantly. (See chart 3.4.)

While two-parent families’ annual hours of paid work increased 18 percent between 1969 and 1996, single-parent households’ paid hours increased 28 percent. Almost all of the increase for two- and single-parent households is due to women’s hours.39

Yet for the average individual worker, work time may not have increased significantly. Average hours at work changed little from 1976 to 1993, increasing just over 1 hour to 39 hours a week. After removing the effect of shifting age distribution, average weekly hours for men did not change and those for women increased by only one hour.40

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The stress box

However, while average hours have not changed much, the proportion of both men and women reporting that they worked on average more than 40 hours per week has been increasing for two decades. (See table 3.1.) From 1979 to 1998, the proportion reporting working more than 40 hours a week rose from 35 to 40 percent for men and from 14 to 22 percent for women.41

In sum, when the hours worked by all family members are added together, most families today do have less "free time." A 1999 Council of Economic Advisors report estimated that working families who had children under age 18 had 22 fewer hours per week to spend with their families. If time for sleep, grocery shopping, cooking, and so on is subtracted, little time is left to spend with children or spouses. Employed fathers in 1997 spent an average of 2.3 hours per workday caring for and being with their children, an increase of 30 minutes since 1977. Employed mothers spent 3.2 hours with children on workdays, not a significant change since 1977. It is not surprising that 70 percent of fathers and mothers want more time with their children.42

Flexibility on the job

As caregivers for their elderly parents or disabled relatives, workers need time—to arrange care, to cover when caregivers are not available, and to do the things other caregivers cannot do. As parents, workers need flexibility to meet various needs of their children—doctor visits, PTA meetings, soccer games, and class trips.

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Percent of married couples in which both spouses work more than 40 hours per week, 1969 and 1998
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Average weekly hours worked by men and women, ages 25-54, 1969-1998

One way workers find time for such family needs is through flexibility at work. In 1997, BLS reported that 28 percent of full-time wage and salary workers had flexible work schedules that allowed them to vary the time they began or ended work, nearly double the 15 percent with that flexibility in 1991. The prevalence was wide-spread across demographic groups, occupations, and industries, though it was much higher in service-producing industries than in goods-producing industries.43

As noted previously, work schedules with non-standard hours can either help a working family or increase the demands on it. When the nonstandard hours are chosen by the worker to accommodate available child care, for example, nonstandard hours are helpful. On the other hand, when a worker is required to work evening or weekend shifts, especially on short notice, it may be more difficult to get child care and to participate in the sports, school, religious, and community activities of the children.

Data on trends in nonstandard hours are not available. However, we can expect a rising prevalence of such schedules given the growth in the service economy where nonstandard hour jobs are more common. In addition, when both parents or a single head of household work, the demand for services outside of normal working hours increases, eating out increases, and the purchase of homemaking services increases. In two-earner families, the rise in family income may also lead to a demand for recreational and entertainment services at night and on weekends. The aging of the population has also increased the demand for medical services around the clock.44

Another way employers can help workers cope is to allow them to take time off (for example, vacation time or family leave) to meet family needs. A 1997 study found that employed mothers with children under 13 miss an average of 6.4 days a year because of family-related issues. Employed fathers with children under 13 miss an average of 3.9 days.45 When time off is needed because of the birth of a child or the serious illness of a family member, one tool for working families is the Family and Medical Leave Act, the first major legislation signed by President Clinton. The act requires companies with 50 or more workers to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected family or medical leave to qualified employees. Since the law was passed in 1993, millions of workers have taken advantage of the law by staying home with a newborn child or sick family member.

In our around-the-world, around-the-clock economy, there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day for parents to do everything they need to do.

Bill Clinton
May 23, 1999

Another change in workplace practices that has helped some families with child care or elder care is the ability of employees to work at home. In May 1997, 21 million employees worked at home (though not necessarily all the time), but more than half were wage and salary workers not paid for work at home. About 5.2 million of those who worked at home did so to help out with family and personal demands. Yet in spite of the flexibility it can offer working families, work at home has not grown much in the 1990s.46

Flexible work arrangements can go beyond the choice of starting and stopping time, working at home, and time off during the day. Data from the 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce illustrate the various workplace options and their prevalence:

  • 68 percent of companies allowed workers to change their starting and quitting times periodically
  • 24 percent allowed workers to change starting and quitting time daily
  • 57 percent permitted workers to move from full-time to part-time status and back while in the same position or level
  • 38 percent had jobsharing
  • 55 percent allowed employees to work at home occasionally
  • 33 percent let workers work offsite on a regular basis
  • 88 percent gave time off for school or childcare functions
  • 84 percent permitted workers to return to work gradually after childbirth or adoption.

A barrier to expanding use of flexible work arrangements is that many workers (40 percent in one survey) think it hurts their advancement opportunities.47 A 1998 survey of 500 women clients, by a firm that places people in flexible jobs, found 59 percent never asked their employer for flexible work arrangements, since they assumed the answer would be no and their careers would be harmed merely by asking.

Sometimes the available tools are not enough. Some workers find they cannot work as much as they would like—or need. Others find they cannot work at all while trying to fulfill family responsibilities. For example, while half of employed caregivers of the elderly reported taking time off, coming in later, or working fewer hours, six percent stopped working altogether and four percent took early retirement.48 And many families are concerned about reducing hours and the likely loss of earnings. The challenge is to give workers the ability to take time for their families without sacrificing pay.


"Ozzie and Harriet" have become demographic dinosaurs. Harriet does not stay home any more. Well over half of all mothers with young children work, and an even larger percentage of mothers of school-age children work. Neither Ozzie nor Harriet gets home by 5:00 every night. And when one parent opts out of the workforce, it may be Ozzie who is taking care of the kids. In addition, both may now help care for aging or ill parents who live in different parts of the country.

These responsibilities have led to a time crunch—not enough hours in the week for fulfilling work and home responsibilities. In some cases, a person needs to be in two places at once— at work and at a sick parent’s bedside, or at work and at home with a newborn child. Because workers have limited options (many cannot find or afford to switch to less stressful jobs, work part time, or hire housekeepers), working parents look to their employers and others who affect the work-place to help them cope.

With little change expected in the number of children per family and continuing slower growth in labor force participation of women, burdens on families with children may not increase greatly, although special needs such as around-the-clock child care and sick care may increase.49 However, as the population ages and workers assume responsibilities for their elderly relatives, we can expect demand for job flexibility and eldercare programs and other options to increase.50 In addition, a new time demand may arise from worker needs to pursue additional education and training to keep their job skills up to date.

No matter what the real increase in time demands will be, families already perceive that they have less time than before. In spite of time-savers like home shoppers, microwaves, and take-out food, families are struggling to cope, and they will likely continue to need more affordable and available child and elder care and increased flexibility on the job.

How do we help working families? While we cannot add hours to the day or instantly "beam" a working mother from her jobsite to her child’s bedside, companies, communities, state, local, and federal governments, and labor unions, individually and together, can take steps to provide flexibility and opportunity for workers to fulfill their responsibilities at home and at the job. There is no one answer—different families have different needs—but there are many options and opportunities to help.

On the eve of the 21st century, we ought to set a goal that all working Americans can take time when they need it to care for their families without losing the income they need to support their families. [It] will require a significant shift in how our nation helps families to succeed at home and work. But it can make all the difference in your lives. It will demand thought and creativity, a willing-ness to experiment; it has to be done in a way that gives families flexibility and doesn’t undermine our dynamic and growing economy.

Bill Clinton
May 23, 1999

34 James T. Bond, Ellen Galinsky, and Jennifer E. Swanberg, The 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce, No. 2, New York: Family and Work Institute, 1997, p. 5.

35 In 1969, 28 percent of women 25 to 54 years of age worked year round, full time; by 1997 the percentage had increased to 50 (although there was a general decline for men over same time period). U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Report of the American Workforce, 1999, forthcoming.

36 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Report of the American Workforce, 1999, forthcoming.

37 Winkler, p. 42.

38 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Report of the American Workforce, 1999, forthcoming.

39 CEA, p. 3.

40 Philip L. Rones, Randy E. Ilg, and Jennifer M. Gardner, “Trends in Hours of Work Since the Mid-1970s,” Monthly Labor Review, April 1997, p. 4.

41 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Report of the American Workforce, 1999, forthcoming.

42 Bond, Galinsky, and Swanberg, pp.5-6.

43 Many of these workers are likely in informal flexible schedules rather the formal plans reported in the Employee Benefits survey, which says flexible schedules are offered to less than 6 percent of employees. BLS Press Release, “Workers on Flexible and Shift Schedules in 1997,” http:\\, March 26, 1998.

44 Presser and Cox, p. 25.

45Ellen Galinsky and Arlene A. Johnson, Reframing the Business Case for Work-Life Initiatives, New York: Family and Work Institute, 1998, p. 6.

46 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Report of the American Workforce, 1999, forthcoming.

47 Galinsky and Bond, pp. V, 111.

48 U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Work and ElderCare: Facts for Caregivers and Their Employers.”

49 Among the occupations that are expected to grow most rapidly in the future, most have a high percentage of workers working nonstandard hours or nonstandard days, thus increasing the need for child care during non-standard hours. Presser and Cox, p. 32.

50 The Census Bureau has estimated a dependency ratio, which shows how many children and elderly there are for every 100 people, aged 18 to 64, who are working. The middle series projections show the dependency ratio would decline from 64 in 1995 to 60 in 2010. Moderate increases are projected to occur by 2020 (to 68) and significant increases by 2050 (80). U.S. Bureau of Census, “Resident Population Projections of the United States: Middle, Low, and High Series, 1996-2050,” March 1996,

51 Katherine S. Newman, “On the High Wire: How the Working Poor Juggle Job and Family Responsibilities,” paper for the Conference on Balancing Acts: Easing the Burdens and Improving the Options for Working Families, June 1999.

52 Bond, Galinsky, and Swanberg.

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