Not a 'Mommy' Issue

Work/life balance has different meanings for different groups, according to the authors of a recent book on cultural trends.

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 1, 2011
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Naomi Cahn and June Carbone are authors of Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford University Press, 2010). In it, they look at issues such as workplace flexibility and how work/life balance has different meanings for different types of families. Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. They collaborated on the answers to the interviewer’s questions.

Is it possible for workers to balance work and personal responsibilities?

Absolutely. For some, that means long hours but having the flexibility to work at home or evenings or weekends. For others, it may mean changes in other aspects of their lives, such as longer school years and school days or for more publicly funded preschool and after-school programs. It may mean having greater ability to quit a job or to take leave for caregiving responsibilities and be able to return to the workforce without a disproportionate price in loss of professional opportunities.

Who’s going to ask for a less onerous work schedule, for example, if it might jeopardize your job?

While it is harder to seek less-onerous schedules right now, we’re seeing increased legal protections and a change in attitudes. Guaranteed paternity leave, for example, is an attractive recruiting tool. Public opinion polls in the 2008 presidential election showed Democrats and Republicans supported reforms promoting greater work/life balance. The business case is extensively documented, according to a recent study from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California-Hastings and the Center for American Progress.

Work/life balance often is seen primarily as a “mommy” issue, but you write about the need for men to have more flexibility around their work schedules. Why do you see this as an issue that affects men as well as women?

There’s a myth that women’s jobs interfere more with family life than men’s jobs do. If anything, it is men’s work that gets in the way of family life. Forty-five percent of U.S. husbands thought their job interfered with family life, according to a survey of 2,000 married people conducted by Penn State University sociologist Paul Amato in 2000. Only about 35 percent of working wives felt that way about their own employment. This is a big shift from a 1980 survey, also involving 2,000 married people. In that survey, about 23 percent of both husbands and working wives thought their jobs interfered with family life. Part of this change may be because fathers expect to be more involved in family life than they once did.

You write that work/life balance “takes on different meanings for different groups within American society.” Please explain.

Workplaces have not changed as quickly as family arrangements have. For example, almost two-thirds of women with children under age 18 have jobs outside the home—triple the rate in 1960. As a result, while the average individual does not necessarily work longer hours outside the home than he or she did a generation ago, families as a whole do, creating much more stress.

In 1965, men’s work and leisure hours did not vary by class. In Jerry A. Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson’s 1998 article “Who Are the Overworked Americans?” in the journal Review of Social Economy, the percentage of men and women working either long or short workweeks had increased since 1970. Approximately 25.2 percent of men and 10.8 percent of women work at least 50 hours per week. Additionally, one in 10 men and one in five women work 30 hours per week or less. Individuals working longer hours tend to be more highly educated and in professional or management positions. Those working fewer hours often are doing so involuntarily. Even before the current recession, the problem of underemployment affected working-class men more than others.

Legal protections also vary. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows eligible workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new child or a family member with a serious medical condition, but only slightly more than half of all employees work in businesses covered by the law, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Moreover, while federal law protects workers from discrimination based on sex or pregnancy status, it doesn’t explicitly protect employees against discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities. As a result, some state and local governments have begun to pass laws that do offer that protection. The number of lawsuits claiming discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities has increased almost 400 percent during the past decade, according to the Center for WorkLife Law.

Are there work/life balance trends that HR professionals need to be prepared to address?

Let us offer a few examples:

  • The younger generation expects fathers to contribute more to child care and women to contribute more to family income. All workers are likely to become flexible about gender roles and more eager to find employers that strengthen their relationships with their children.
  • We will see a dramatic change in the workforce as Baby Boomers retire. Watch for an increase in the age of Social Security eligibility. Dealing with aging workers will be a major challenge.
  • The following generations, we fear, will not be as well-educated as Boomers. An elite group, bankrolled by their parents, will take unpaid internships to establish the right credentials and switch jobs to keep themselves entertained. They will be talented, but somewhat pickier than their talents may warrant.
  • The bigger change will be the growing ranks of the undereducated. The best-educated and most responsible families are having fewer children; a larger percentage of the next generation will be raised by single parents, and escalating tuition will place higher education beyond the reach of a larger segment of students. Employers should seek ways to work with high schools, colleges and universities to train workers for more specialized skills.
  • For all but the top income groups, divorce, the rates of cohabitation and nonmarital births are likely to remain high. The number of households with one adult is likely to grow. Office romances are likely to increase, child care concerns are likely to remain high, and the ages when employees are distracted by romance or family are likely to become less predictable.
  • The erosion of the wage structure for less-educated men and the increase in family instability for the bottom half of the American population make the least-educated men less attached to the labor market and their reliability as workers less certain.
  • In the current economy, companies have more leverage to negotiate a different wage structure for professionals who charge by the hour. This may promote greater flexibility in family arrangements.

For more information about workplace flexibility, see SHRM’s Workplace Flexibility Resource Page

The interviewer is associate editor for HR News.

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