Globe article on work/family
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|Sun, 05-11-2003 - 11:38am|
Increase in work hours hits
dual-earner families hardest
By Kimberly Blanton, Globe Staff, 5/11/03
While growing numbers of people are unemployed or underemployed, the lucky majority who still have a job are probably overworked. The time squeeze falls hard on two-earner couples juggling work schedules, day-care pickups, and children's sick days.
They probably don't need anyone telling them they're exhausted. But Barry Bluestone, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, recently provided data to legitimize their complaints. Bluestone, a panelist at the work-family conference in Boston last weekend - cosponsored by the Brandeis University Community, Families & Work Program, and by Boston University's journalism school - said America three years ago eclipsed Japan to become the world's most overworked nation. In most countries, work time has moved downward - but not here.
Mainly because of the influx of women into the US work force, the average hours an individual works annually has been on a steady upward trend since the early 1980s, rising about 180 hours, to more than 2,020 hours currently. Couples in which both partners work put in a total of 2,850 hours in 1965 and by 1997 were clocking 3,450 hours per year - that's 600 additional hours per couple.
What drives the workaholic trend is complex, Bluestone said, but falling wages through the mid-1990s are one explanation. Although wages picked up at the end of the '90s, early data indicate they have resumed their decline. ''If the boss offers you additional overtime, you take it,'' he said. He also blamed ''greater job insecurity,'' which drives people to work longer hours. For professionals, he sees pressure to earn one of the top salaries offered only to stellar achievers. ''The way you make it to the winner-take-all level is you work as many hours as you can,'' he said.
The release valve for many families is for one spouse, often the wife, to go part time or for parents to alternate shifts. While the goals are to minimize time pressures and the amount of day care needed, these self-designed solutions are hardly ideal.
Rosalind Barnett and Karen Gareis at Brandeis's work-family program studied 98 women physicians, half of them working full time and half part time. Their finding: Wives who work part time don't necessarily have better relationships with their husbands. The arrangement doesn't work if the wife becomes dissatisfied with the drudgery and household chores that demand her time and attention.
Barnett said many two-earner couples go into this sort of arrangement with the illusion that if the wife works fewer hours, it will solve their problems. What the research shows is if the wife makes the career sacrifice of going part time and then her husband works longer hours, she may be unhappy. She may feel he does not spend enough time with the children. ''Reduced hours do not necessarily have an impact on quality of life,'' she said. ''If he's happy with his work hours, she's not.''
On the other hand, if the wife likes her reduced work hours and uses it for activities she is not under time pressures to complete - say, gardening versus preparing dinner every night - then both spouses are happier. ''When both like their schedules then everyone's happy,'' she said.
Other couples may choose alternative shifts - with one parent working the evening or night shift - so one parent is usually home. But when husbands provide this type of child care, results also are mixed, according to Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Iowa. Other researchers have shown about one in four couples carried nonoverlapping shifts by 1990, and they reported lower marriage quality and a higher divorce rate.
To go deeper, Glass studied 309 white, middle-class women from northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan who worked at least 20 hours a week before becoming pregnant. She then looked at the 110 couples using alternating shifts and discovered changes happened, over time, in the father's role in care. Just over two-thirds of couples in which fathers took care of a 6-month-old during all or part of their wives' shifts were still doing so when the baby was a year old. Among couples relying solely on father care at six months, only half still did so by the time the baby was a year. ''There's a high drop-out rate,'' Glass said. And at 7 years old, the child's relationship with a father who provides at least 20 hours of care is better than the relationship with a father who provides less care.
Oddly, the more hours the mother worked the less the father contributed to child care and the greater the couple's reliance on day-care facilities or family and friends. Glass explained that while many fathers could help out for relatively short periods, it was difficult to sustain a commitment to full-time care.
When fathers did take care of the children, mothers rated their satisfaction with care as no better than other arrangements. Glass suggests various reasons: fathers may be ''reluctant'' caregivers or wives may be picky. It is also more stressful to patch together multiple sources of child care if the father is not on full-time duty, she said.
While some mothers were ''ecstatic'' over their husband's involvement in their children, others were not. It ''had a lot to do with the father's motivation and interest,'' she said. It may come down to ''how many dads wanted to do it and how many were badgered into it because they knew their wives thought it would be great or they felt they should be with their babies. Some fathers really underestimated how much work it was going to be to do this.''
While American fathers aren't always ideal caretakers in their wives' or researchers' eyes, they are standouts compared with fathers in other countries. According to a recent report by the Council on Contemporary Families, US husbands do more housework and childcare than men in four other developed countries: France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.