AND THE FLIGHT PLAN OF CAPITALISM
Over the last two decades, American workers have increasingly divided into a majority who work too many hours and a minority with no work at all. This split hurts families at both extremes, but I focus here on the growing scarcity of time among the long-hours majority. For many of them, a speedup at the office and factory has marginalized life at home, so that the very term “work-family balance” seems to many a bland slogan with litde bearing on real life. Drawing on my research at Amerco, a Fortune 500 company, I argue that a company’s “family-friendly” policy goes only as deep as the emotional geography of the workplace and home, the drawn and redrawn boundaries between the sacred and the profane.
For about a fifth of the employees I talked to at Amerco in the early and mid 1990s, family life had become like “work” and work had become more like “home.” The latest advances in corporate engineering had, for them, increased the magnetic draw of work, while strain and fracture had reduced the draw of family. I also found exceptions to this cultural reversal, variations within it, and countertendencies against it. But new “company towns” are now growing up in America modeled on this cultural reversal—towns that offer a curious form of socialism for the professionals and managers of multinational corporations and capitalism for everyone else. As they show, it is not simply individual priorities we need to balance but whole social worlds.
Three factors are creating the current speed-up in work and family life in the United States. (By the term “family,” I refer to adults who raise children—committed unmarried couples, same-sex couples, single mothers, two job couples, and wage-earner-housewife couples.) First of all, increasing numbers of mothers now work outside the home. As I noted in the introduction, in 1900 less than a fifth of American women worked for pay and less than 10 percent of married women did. By 2000 two-thirds of women worked for pay, and mothers outnumbered nonmothers. Indeed, over half of mothers of children one year old and younger now work for pay. Second, according to a 1999 International Labor Organization report, workers ax – putting in longer hours than did their counterparts a decade ago, and longer than llu-ii counterparts in Japan today (see chapter 10).1 l’liixl.
Americans work in jobs that generally lack flexibility, and in many, if not most, workplaces the very model of “a job” and “career” is based on the image of a traditional man whose wife cares for the children at home. Many women now work on jobs that fit this mold. Compared to the 1970s, mothers now take less time off for the birth of a child and are more likely to work through the summer. They are more likely to work continuously until they retire at age sixty-five. So they increasingly fit the profile of year-round, lifelong paid workers, a profile that has long characterized traditional men. Meanwhile, working fathers have not reduced their hours but, if anything, expanded them. So more parents are in a time bind.
Not all working parents with more free time will spend it at home being nice to children or elderly relatives, starting street theater and poetry readings, or growing organic vegetables in community gardens. But without a chance for more time at home, the issue of how to use it well or enjoy it does not arise at all.
So how are we to think about this time bind? If we explore recent writing, we can discern three stances toward it.
One is a cool modern stance, according to which the speed-up has become “normal,” even fashionable. Decline in time at home does not “marginalize” family life, proponents say, it makes it different—maybe even better. Like many other popular self-help books addressed to the busy working mother, The Superwoman Syndrome (1984) by Maijorie Schaevitz offers tips on how to fend off appeals for help from neighbors, relatives, friends, and how to stop feeling guilty about one’s mothering. It instructs the mother how to measure out “quality time” frugally and abandons as hopeless the project of getting men more involved at home. Such books call for no changes in the workplace, no changes in the culture, and no change in men. For the cool modern, the solution to rationalization at work is rationalization at home. Tacitly such books accept what others of us consider the corrosive effects of global capitalism on family life and on the very notion of what people need to be happy.
A second stance toward the work-family speed-up is traditional in that it calls for women’s permanent return to the home, or quasi-traditional in that it acquiesces to a secondary role and lower-rank mommy track for women at work.2 Those who take this stance believe that the work-family speed-up is a problem, but they deny the fact that most women now have to work, want to work, and embrace the concept of gender equity. They think of men and women as different in essential ways and add to this idea essential notions of time: “industrial” time for men and “family” time for women.3
Those who take a third, warm modem stance see the speed-up as a problem but also hold to an egalitarian ideal (at home and work). They advocate a shorter working week, such as workers enjoy in Norway and France, and company-based lamily-lriendly policies. What are these family-friendly reforms?
■ flextime: a workday with flexible starting and quitting times, but usually 40 hours of work and the opportunity to “bank” hours at one time and reclaim them later
■ flexplace: home-based work, such as telecommuting
• regular or permanent part-time: less than full-time work with full or pro-rated benefits and promotional opportunities in proportion to one’s skill and contribution
■ job sharing: two people voluntarily sharing one job with benefits and salary pro-rated
• compressed working week: four 10-hour days with three days off, or three 12-hour days with four days off
• paid parental leave
• family obligations as a consideration in the allocation of shift work and required overtime
Potentially, a movement for shorter hours and this range of family – friendly reforms could spread work, increase worker control over hours, and create a “warm modern” world for women to be equal within. But as political goals in America over the last fifty years, work sharing and a shorter working week have “died and gone to heaven,” where they live on as hopeless utopian ideals.
But are some companies offering these reforms? And if so, are they for real? And are working parents pressing for them? The good news is that more and more American companies are offering their workers family – friendly alternative work schedules. According to one 1991 study, 88 percent of 188 companies surveyed offer part-time work, 77 percent offer flextime of some sort, 48 percent offer job sharing, 35 percent offer some form of flexplace, and 20 percent offer a compressed working week.1 The bad news is that in most companies the interested worker must seek and receive the approval of a supervisor or department head. More important still, most policies do not apply to lower-level workers whose conditions of work are covered by union contracts. So a new Faustian bargain—Г11 give you family- friendly policies if you accept job insecurity—has begun to cast a pall on the whole project.
In this context, even if offered them, lew workers are actually taking advantage of such policies. One study of 384 companies notes that only 9 companies reported even one father who took an official unpaid leave at the birth of his child.5 Few are on temporary or permanent part-time. Still fewer share a job. Of workers with children ages twelve and under, only 4 percent of men and 13 percent of women worked less than 40 hours a week.*’ Among the 26,000 employees at Amerco, the average working week ranged from 45 to 55 hours. Managers and factory workers often worked 50 or 60 hours a week while clerical workers tended to work a more normal, 40-hour week. Everyone agreed the company was a "pretty workaholic place.”
Why weren’t workers trying to get more time off? Perhaps they shied away from applying for leaves or shortening their hours because they couldn’t afford to earn less. This certainly explains why many young parents continue to work long hours. But it doesn’t explain why the weal driest workers, the managers and prof essionals, are among the least interested in additional time off. Even among the company’s factory workers, who in 1993 averaged between $11 and $12 an hour, and who routinely competed for optional overtime, two 40-hour-a-week paychecks with no overtime work were enough, they said, to support the family. Still, that overtime looked pretty good.
Perhaps employees shied away from shorter-hour schedules because they were afraid of having their names higher on the list of workers who might be laid off in a period of economic downturn. This was not an idle fear. Through the 1980s a third of America’s largest companies experienced some layoffs, though this did not happen to managers or clerical workers at Amerco. By union contract, production workers were assured that layoffs, should they occur, would be made according to seniority’ and not according to any other criteria—such as how many hours an employee had worked. Yet the workaholism went on. Also, employees in the most profitable sectors of the company showed no greater tendency to ask for shorter or more flexible hours for family reasons than employees in the least profitable sectors.
Is it, then, that workers who could afford shorter hours didn’t know about the company’s family-friendly policies? No. All of the 130 working parents I spoke with had heard about alternative schedules and knew where they could find out more.
Perhaps, then, managers responsible for implementing family-friendly polices were actually sabotaging them. Even though company policy allowed flexibility, a worker had to get his boss’s okay. And the head of the engineering division of the company told me flatly, “My policy on flextime is that there is no flextime.” Other apparently permissive division heads oversaw supervisors who were also tough on this issue. But even managers known to be cooperative had few employees asking for alternative schedules.
Workers could also ask for time off, but get it “off the books.” To some extent, this indeed happened. New fathers would take a few days to a week of sick leave for the birth of a baby instead of filing for "parental leave,” which they feared would mark them as unserious workers. Yet even counting informal leaves, most women managers returned to full-time 40- to 55- hour work schedules fairly soon after their six weeks of paid maternity leave. Most women secretaries returned after six months, and most women production workers returned after six weeks. Most new fathers took a few days off at most. Even "off the hooks,” working parents were having a hard time spending much time at home.
More important than all these factors seemed to be a company speed-up in response to global competition. In the early 1990s workers each year spoke of working longer hours than they had the year before. When asked why, they explained that the company was trying to “reduce costs," in part by asking employees to do more than whatever they were doing before.
But the sheer existence of a company speed-up doesn’t explain why employees weren’t trying to resist it, why there wasn’t much backtalk. Parents were eager to tell me how their families came first, how they were clear about that. (And national polls, too, show that next to a belief in God, Americans most strongly believe in “the family.”) But practices that might express this belief—such as sharing breakfast and dinner—were shifting in the opposite direction. In the minds of many parents of young children, warm modern intentions seemed casually fused with cool modern practices. In some ways, those within the work-family speed-up didn’t seem to be trying to slow down. What about their experience might be making this true?