Time and American Families

Yesterday, I posted to facebook on how many weekday hours American parents spend on housework, childwork, and job work. Click through to interact with Nathan Yau’s visualization, which shows that e.g. many dads now spend 1-3 hours per day in child and house care (much more than in 1965!) but they’re also doing more at work. Women have joined the workforce… and still do a lot at home. It *feel* like we’re doing more in every area, something that Schor’s Overworked American and Hochschild’s Second Shift would seem to back up.

A friend asked:

You hint that you feel this points out something that is problematic. Could you state the problem(s) you see here more clearly and then explain what you think needs to be done about it?

Keeping it brief, I see several interlocking dynamics and have heard a few ideas for reducing the tensions. I’ll keep it short. And I’d welcome your thoughts on this!

 

1. Working More, Caring Less

Dynamic: More Americans moved from unpaid farm or housework to paid jobs in the 19th-20th centuries… yet over the past two generations, companies have been trimming real pay and benefits, and offshoring to keep their growth up. As a result, Americans work more but earn less (inflation-adjusted)–yet there’s still a lot to do at home.

Issue: At work, we’ve created perverse incentives for companies to push established workers into overtime, while keeping others on temp or part-time work. Rising healthcare and education costs (plus the natural desire for interesting work) push more two-parent families into the workforce, leaving fewer at-home family members available to provide a backup at home for children, the sick, elders, or others needing care.

Ideas: Adjustments to benefits and overtime rules could ensure that a company’s marginal cost to work an employee more than 35-40 hours a week jumps strongly–even for salaried employees. That would create incentives to hire more workers at moderate hours.

 

2. More Temp Work, Fewer Supports

Dynamic: In our society, social belonging and security comes from paid careers with a good salary in a good labor field. We’re training up more skilled workers, but companies have less need for full-time workers.

Issue: More people work part-time, freelance, or gig jobs which don’t allow for saving or supporting a family. We partly support children, elders, the permanently disabled, and those laid off from full-time work, but have few means to meet the economic needs of all those not needed in the workforce. For many, this leads quickly to isolation, debt, and despair.

Ideas: If companies paid into a social fund for every hour of work contracted, it would reduce incentives to avoid hiring employees. If they aren’t supplying health, childcare, sick leave, and retirement, someone else is. Companies who avoid a living wage should actually be paying taxes (cf. Panama Papers) to ensure that their workforce stays healthy. You can’t get the benefit of educated, healthy humans whose families are cared for–and outsource all the costs.

 Immigration, Assimilation and the American Dream, by Jeffrey Smith (CC-BY-NC-ND)

3. Higher Cost of Kids, Fewer Supports

Dynamic: Parents are expected to provide 24/7 direct supervision and education, while fewer family members or neighborhood parents are nearby to share care. As ‘parenting’ takes more time, energy and investment than before, it starts to seem sensible not to have children. The needs of a growing proportion of elders intensifies our care responsibilities.

Issue: Parents absorb the costs of raising future workers, creators, and taxpayers, and we all reap the benefits (Folbre, The Invisible Heart). Women often give the most and gain the smallest retirements; realizing this creates incentives for both genders to embrace paid work and avoid care work.

Partial solutions: Public preschool is a clear help to fathers and mothers; paid leave is as well. Shifting work culture so that both professional men and women could move up on moderate schedules (e.g. two people work at 30 hours a week, instead of one at 60) likewise creates incentives for everyone to keep giving of their skills and also have time to nurture at home.

How do you think about these dynamics? I’d be interested to hear.

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