In her latest book, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997), UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild takes a detective’s eye to the problem of what’s keeping parents at work so long. What she discovered were men and women apparently happily married to their jobs and not the least inclined to take advantage of family-friendly company policies — programs that would have allowed employees to spend more time at home.
Hochschild, who made waves with The Second Shift — her groundbreaking 1989 book on gender roles in two-career marriages — this time spent three summers observing employees of a Fortune 500 company she calls “Amerco” to protect the privacy of those she studied. She chose the Northeastern manufacturer precisely for its reputation as a good place for parents to work: A 1991 survey by the Families and Work Institute named it one of the 10 most family-friendly companies in the U.S.
After visiting company-sponsored childcare centers, tagging along on errands with stressed-out, upper-management moms, and interviewing employees in all sectors of the company — from “Bill,” a high-ranking corporate executive, to “Becky,” a factory-line worker — Hochschild discovered myriad ways in which the home is being invaded by the pressures of work, while the workplace is becoming a haven from a hectic, unrewarding home life. Her findings offer eloquent, sad, and sometimes chilling evidence of the “time bind” many employees find themselves in and, more broadly, suggest a disturbing cultural transformation in the way Americans feel about home, family, work, and even time itself.
Q: You argue that people are having trouble arranging their work hours to spend more time with their families. But you also contend that men and women alike are choosing to spend less time at home. What’s going on? Where’s the bind?
A: The bind is between work and home for both women and men. In The Second Shift, I put forward the argument that women have changed more rapidly than men. Women are spending more and more time at work, but men are not spending much more time taking care of needs at home (the second shift). We’re still stuck in this stalled revolution, and we’ve come to think of that stall as “normal.” In The Time Bind, I’ve explored ways in which the first shift (paid work) is staging a quiet takeover of life at home.
When I began my research, I thought we were working more for external reasons — for example, we needed the money. When I took a hard look, that explanation didn’t fit the facts: At the company I studied, the richer the employees, the less interested they were in time at home. The poorer they were, the more interested.
Another explanation I tried out was that with all the downsizing going on, people are working very hard so that they don’t get on the layoff list. But when I asked people, “Are you working your 60-hour week because you’re afraid of being laid off?” they said, “No. I’m doing it because I love my work.” Disbelieving these responses at first, I looked at two different departments of this company, one which was adding people and another which was subtracting people. In comparing the two, I found that there weren’t any differences in the number of people applying for family-friendly work schedules.
I’m not saying that fear of being laid off or the financial need to work long hours aren’t real issues for people. It’s just that they didn’t account for the absence of a cultural resistance to long hours at work. I was looking for that kind of cultural resistance. What I found was a company that offered policies that we say we want — paternity and maternity leave, part-time, job sharing, flex-time — but very few employees who were interested in them.
Q: Were these policies really available? I got the sense that while the policies were on company books, they often didn’t exist in practice.
A: Indeed, there were some managers who really wanted to sabotage the policies. It was just an extra headache for them. But there were also managers who took pride in offering flexible work arrangements. When I compared people working for rigid managers to those who were working for flexible managers, I found little difference in the number of people who came forward to ask for shorter hours.
Then I thought that perhaps people just didn’t know about these policies. Wrong. In fact some workers said, “I’m really proud to be working for an enlightened company.” Or, “I really don’t know the policy specifics, but I know how I can find out should I need them in an emergency.” But they weren’t defining the scarcity of time at home as an emergency.
All of these explanations — that people wouldn’t want more time at home because they couldn’t afford it, or they wouldn’t want more time because they were working scared, or they wouldn’t want more time because they didn’t dare ask a bad boss, or they wouldn’t want more time because they didn’t know about the policies — hold a little water and, in some cases, were definitive explanations. But they didn’t account for the absence of a cultural resistance to long hours at work.
Q: Have we become a workaholic, anti-family culture?
A: This country has become more workaholic, but I don’t think Americans are anti-family. It’s not a family values issue. We live in two separate cultural worlds, one encompassing the workplace and one encompassing home and family. Over time, the world of the workplace has been transformed by a new kind of cultural engineering — especially in Fortune 500 companies — where the worker is invited to be empowered, to work closely with a team, to be a part of a quality circle, etc. In this new work culture, there is a great premium on reward. Moreover, if you get into a problem, there is somebody there to help you. For all its aggravations, many people like being at work.
I don’t think that this new culture is necessarily bad. Rather, I think we need the same kinds of support at home that we are now getting at work. Today we have more recognition ceremonies at work, and fewer recognition ceremonies, so to speak, at home. We’re asked to value the individual at work, and nobody’s quite holding that ideology at home. It’s tempting, therefore, to emotionally relocate to the workplace.
Of course, there are many kinds of workplaces and many kinds of homes. There is also a complicated set of corporate work-family strategies. Some corporations are going in the high-investment direction I saw at Amerco: “We’re going to put a lot of effort into making a good workplace, and we’re going to get a lot of work out of these folks.” Others are following the strategy of divestment: “We’re going to lay workers off; we’re going to speed up; we’re going to go back to Frederick Taylor’s efficiency model.” [In the early 1900s, Taylor engineered highly rigorous and mechanistic standards for factory work.]
Q: But isn’t the company you studied in fact doing this? It has laid people off; it has encouraged a speedup in the sense that people are working a lot longer at their jobs for the same amount of pay. It’s Taylorism with a smiley face.
A: You’re right. But now workers buy into it. They internalize the speedup; they think their hurry is due to their work ethic. At Amerco, people began to think it was exciting to be in a workaholic environment. They would say, “We’re our own worst enemy”; “It’s hard to scrape myself up and get home, there’s just so much to do”; and “No one does it to us, we’re like that to ourselves.”
They simply felt very rewarded by work. Moreover, their best friends were at work. Essentially, the neighborhood has gone to work. Corporate engineers have looked at how women are with each other, borrowing the best tips from female neighborhood culture and then transporting them back into the bosom of capitalism. They’ve feminized capitalism. You have to marvel at such corporate engineering, and then you have to watch it like a hawk because it’s stealing family time away from families.
Q: Are you suggesting the workplace has been feminized but that the effect of this feminization has been far different than what the original women’s movement might have hoped for?
A: Yes. Absolutely. A lot of feminists in the 1970s were calling for an equality in the workplace based on a female sensibility, as well as for an equality in which men participated more actively at home. But the corporate world was holding out the carrot of another equality in which women became equal on traditionally male terms. And there have been more rewards for women to throw themselves into work, frankly, than there have been rewards for men to go in the other direction.
I’m a feminist. And I’m certainly not saying it was a mistake for women to enter the labor force. I believe work outside the home is good for women and it’s good for families. All the data we have show that working women are more likely to feel good about themselves and positive about their lives, and to feel that their contributions at home are honored and valued — more so than women who permanently stay home.
However, women have entered the work world on male terms, and because of power arrangements they haven’t felt able to push back. The strategy we need to pursue is one of recovering our time — to push back on our hours of work. We need to form a new alliance between feminist groups, labor unions, child advocates, progressive corporations, and the federal government insofar as it’s willing to pursue a family-friendly agenda.
Q: But if people really like to work and they don’t want to go home, why should we care about starting a “time movement” that would give us more time away from work to spend with our families?
A: I hope to open up a conversation about the costs of settling for the wrong terms at work. And I think there are enough people who don’t feel good about the conditions under which they’re working to begin this conversation. People are ambivalent. They feel confused. I hope to appeal to this ambivalence.
Q: Men who would like to take more responsibility for child rearing seem to be in an untenable position, almost worse than that of women, because in today’s corporate culture wanting to spend more time with one’s family — to be a family man — is taken as a sign of lack of ambition.
A: Yes. I think that when you allow a market culture to prevail, those new men, those heroes of an alternative culture, suffer. For example, I interviewed a young engineer, the first man to apply for formal paternity leave at Amerco — two weeks, unpaid. His own father had left home early in his childhood, and he felt strongly about becoming a real daddy to his child, from the very start. His wife appreciated his doing this. The women in his office appreciated it. But his male co-workers divided into two groups. Acquaintances pretended they didn’t know why he’d been absent, though they did know. Friends kidded him, “So, did you catch up on the soaps?” They could understand his wanting to take a holiday, but they couldn’t understand paternity leave. They thought family-friendly policies were for women, not men. Of course, if he’d been living in Sweden he wouldn’t have gotten the soaps jokes, since he’d be among the 80 percent of all employed fathers who take two weeks paternity leave there.
Q: What’s happening to the kids in this time-deprived family dynamic?
A: The children I saw were doing fine in school and weren’t beating up kids on the playground. But children feel starved for time, and adults feel guilty for starving children of time. That’s a huge problem, not because your kid won’t grow up to be bright and successful, but what if they grow up to be bright and successful and replay the same time-starved life that was taught to them? I talked to one child, who said to her grandmother on the telephone: “Grandma, I don’t have time to talk to you.” Well, this kid was doing beautifully in school, but is that what really matters? If that’s what matters most, aren’t we missing an important emotional piece of the picture?
We want to live fully human lives. Not only is that the feminist project, it’s the progressive project. What I’m talking about is very radical. The time movement is an extension of the labor movement, only it’s fundamentally different because it puts family and private life center stage in a way that the labor movement has not done. Even portions of the feminist movement have not yet dared to do it.
A new time movement needs to be critical of market culture; it also needs to critique the ways in which capitalism has incorporated the useful aspects of neighborhood female culture and given itself a humanistic face.
The subtraction of effort from community life has been seen as the absence of civic virtue. I see it as the result of increasing the number of hours at work. The marketplace has been absorbing more people’s time, and that time is coming not just from families but from communities.
The focus of our public discourse has been on how American companies are competing with Japanese, German, and other foreign companies. What this allows us to ignore is how each of those American companies is really in competition with the families of the workers. That’s the real competition. And in that competition the American companies are winning hands down.
Q: Why haven’t we been able to hold the line, like other nations, against the invasion of work into the home?
A: I think we have a rawer version of capitalism and a more fragile community and family base than other nations. We are a more individualistic culture. From the Boston Tea Party on, we’ve had too little faith in government. We also have a higher rate of mobility from one community to another. These American characteristics didn’t wreak havoc until other factors came into play — the decline of labor movements and the globalization of capital. We could get along with rugged individualism, social mobility, and the absence of dedication to community before. But when you add on these two extra factors, the balance is tipped in favor of the marketplace. And the marketplace has won — for the moment.