The moment has come to adjust the old workplace to the new work force. As history has shown us’ the only effective way to bring about basic change is through collective action. Such a movement would have to face certain fundamental issues. As a start, since the corporation absorbs increasing amounts of family time, it is the corporation that we most need to change. Research on large companies indicates that it is hardly prudent to rely on company executives as our architects of time. Whatever their stated goals, whatever they believe they are doing, they are likely to exacerbate, not relieve, the time bind of their workers.
Therefore, a time movement would need to find its center outside the corporation, however important it may be to cooperate with advocates of family-friendly policies inside the company. The struggle for the eight-hour day that began in the nineteenth century and triumphed in the thirties was spearheaded mainly by unionized male workers. A new time movement would have to be made up of a wider range of stakeholders and the organizations that represent them. Male and female workers, labor unions, child advocates and feminists, as well as work-family balance advocates and even the leaders of some progressive companies, would act as the vanguard of such a campaign.
Supporters of the eight-hour day strove to expand the leisure time of workers but said little about families per se. Perhaps this was because most unionized workers at that time were men not responsible for the direct care of children. But now that most mothers are on the job, work time is inextricably linked to family life. A new time movement would need to focus far more on the nature of this linkage. On the other hand, corporations that do provide family-friendly programs tend to associate these programs only with middle-class women, leaving out middle-class men as well as the working class and poor of both genders. Clearly, although women would be a significant constituency of a time movement, men have just as much to gain. Male workers, who often average longer hours than women and whose presence is often sorely missed at home, need a time movement at least as much as women do.
As my study of Amerco (a pseudonym for a Fortune 500 company that offers options for shorter hours that few workers take advantage of) has shown, however, even when the jobs of working parents are secure, pay a sufficient wage and provide family-friendly programs, many working parents are still reluctant to spend more time at home. American fathers spend less time at home than mothers do, expand their work hours when children are small and, if Amerco is any indication, are reluctant to take paternity leaves. We know from previous research that many men have found a haven at work. This isn’t news. The news is that growing numbers of working women are leery of spending more time at home as well. They feel guilty and stressed out by long hours at work, but they feel ambivalent about cutting back on those hours.
Women fear losing their place at work; having such a place has become a source of security, pride and a powerful sense of being valued. As a survey conducted by Bright Horizons (a Boston-based company that runs on-site daycare centers in twenty-three states) indicates, women are just as likely to feel appreciated as men at the workplace; as likely as men to feel underappreciated at home; and even more likely than men to have friends at work. To cut back on work hours means risking loosening ties to a world that, tension-filled as it is, offers insurance against even greater tension and uncertainty at home. For a substantial number of time-bound working parents, the stripped-down home and the community-denuded neighborhood are simply losing out to the pull of the workplace.
Many women are thus joining men in a flight from the “inner city” of home to the “suburbs” of the workplace. In doing so, they have absorbed the views of an older, male-oriented work world about what a “real career” and “full commitment to the job” really mean. Women now make up nearly half the labor force. The vast majority of them need and want to be there. There is definitely no going back. But women have entered the workplace on “male” terms. It would be less problematic for women to adopt a male model of work–to finally enjoy privileges formerly reserved for men–if the male model of work were one of balance. But it is not.
All this is unsettling news, in part because the children of working parents are being left to adjust to or resist the time bind–and all of its attendant consequences–more or less on their own. It is unsettling because while children remain precious to their parents, the “market value” of the world in which they are growing up has declined drastically. One need not compare their childhoods with a perfect childhood in a mythical past to conclude that our society needs to face up to a serious problem.
But the role of a movement for the reform of work time should not be limited to encouraging companies to offer policies allowing shorter or more flexible hours. As my research has shown, such policies may serve as little more than fig leaves concealing a long-hour work culture. A time movement would also need to challenge the premises of that work culture. It would ask: Are workers judged mainly on the excellence of their performance, or mainly on the amount of time they are present at the workplace? Is there a culture of trust that allows workers to pinch-hit for one another as needs arise? Is there job security? The answers to these questions are crucial, for shorter hours can have little appeal as long as employees fear that the long hours they now work may disappear entirely.
To start with, a time movement should press to restructure corporate incentives. For example, the Commerce Department could be pressured to broaden the criteria for receipt of its coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (annually given to companies for outstanding achievement in meeting the standards of “performance excellence”) to include the successful implementation of family-friendly programs as measured by the number of employees who actually use them. How many working parents at a given company report that they have enough time for their families? How many go to P.T.A. meetings? How many volunteer in the schools? These could be signs of a company’s success in establishing a work-family balance.
Then, too, a time movement must not shy away from opening a national dialogue on the most difficult and frightening aspect of our time bind: the need for emotional investment in family life in an era of familial divestiture and deregulation. It would have to force a public reckoning with private ways out of the time bind–emotional asceticism, the love affair with capitalism, the repeatedly postponed plans of the potential self–that seem only to worsen the situation.
Finally, a time movement would need to compel us to face the issue of gender. In the early stages of the women’s movement many feminists, myself included, pushed for restructuring work life to allow for shorter hours, more flexible jobs and restructuring of home life so that men could get in on the action. But over the years, this part of the women’s movement seems to have surrendered the initiative to feminists more concerned with helping women break through the corporate glass ceiling into long-hour careers. A time movement would have to bring us all back to the question of how women can truly become men’s equals in a more child-oriented and civic-minded society.
A time movement would need to tackle a number of other tough questions as well. How many hours a day, a week, a year, should people work? How can we press for better work environments without inadvertently making them havens from life at home? How can both partners in a relationship achieve a stable and compatible understanding of work-family balance? In an era of growing income inequality, how can more time be made available to the working poor as well as to the better off?
Sweden, a global competitor long held up as a model of work-family balance, allows 360 days of parental leave, thirty at 85 percent pay and 210 at 75 percent–and 78 percent of fathers take part of it. In addition, Sweden offers up to 120 days of leave a year at 75 percent of income for the care of sick children.
Travelers in Sweden quickly sense that they are in a child-friendly environment. (Even trains have children’s play areas with little slides, crawl spaces and tables.) Swedish family policy specifies that children have the right to be looked after properly while their parents work. The government subsidizes childcare, maintaining high standards for secure and stimulating environments at childcare centers nationwide.
In the nineties, Sweden has become a model in a more unexpected way as well. Pressured by more conservative members of the European Union, Sweden has taken tentative steps to cut back on family benefits for working parents. In response, grassroots protest groups have sprung up across the country. The Children’s Lobby, established in 1991, is fighting cuts in children’s benefits, as is Support Stockings, a group formed by women from all the main political parties. It has even threatened to create a separate party if politicians don’t work harder to support family-friendly issues. In opinion polls, a third of Swedish women indicated that they might vote for such a party.
Any successful movement for social change begins with a vision of life as it could be, with the notion that something potential could become real. So let’s imagine a mother picking up her daughter at childcare twice a week at 3 RM. instead of 6 RM. Picture a father working half-day Fridays and volunteering at his child’s center. Let’s imagine P.T.A. meetings to which a large majority of the parents come, and libraries where working parents can afford to devote their spare time to reading or literacy programs, or community gardens in which they and their children have the leisure to grow vegetables. Picture too the voting booths in which parents choose candidates who make flexible worktime possible.
But vision alone will not be enough. A time movement will not succeed without changes in many of the underlying social conditions that make it necessary. The rising power of global capitalism, the relative decline of labor unions and the erosion of civil society will all test the resolve of such a movement. Yet it should not be forgotten that such trends not only tighten the time bind we live with but highlight the urgent need for a way to gain release from it. Job scarcity can make people “work scared” (and thus work longer hours), but it could also allow corporations and unions to look at ways to share more lower-hour jobs. Under the right political and social conditions, the growth of technology, which is extending the “anywhere, anytime” workplace into the home, might help people balance work and family, even as it squeezes non-worktime even more.
Finally, I believe that the rising number of women in the labor force–and their partners–are a growing constituency for a time movement. This is especially true for those in the middle ranks of the corporate world. It is these workers whose potential selves–if not yet their real ones–are clamoring for more time at home. At a hypothetical meeting of time activists, a unionized auto worker who wants to cut down on overtime in order to give hours back to laid-off comrades may yet join together with an upper-middle-class, nonunion working mom who wants to job-share. Both could find common cause in their children. The most ardent constituency for a solution to the time bind are those too young as yet to speak up.