Working Couples Make Time for Their Families

By Lang, Susan S. | Human Ecology, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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Working Couples Make Time for Their Families

Lang, Susan S., Human Ecology

ABOUT THREE-QUARTERS OF middle-income, dual-earner couples in a study in upstate New York--and almost all of those couples raising children-"resist the demands of a greedy workplace" by scaling back their work commitments for the sake of their families and to have more discretionary time, according to a new study.

But the ways husbands and wives mesh work and family differ. The researchers found, for example, that even though most couples consider husbands and wives to be "equal," twice as many women as men report putting limits on their work commitments.

The result: a "neotraditional" arrangement with the husband's career the primary one in the family. This scaling back "works" in terms of making it feasible to manage two paid jobs along with the "job" at home, but can end up damaging a women's long-term career attainment.

The practice of consciously scaling back as a strategy to cope with family and work responsibilities is pervasive, say Cornell sociologists Penny Becker and Phyllis Moen of the Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute, which is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Moen, the Ferris Family Professor of Life Course Studies and director of the institute, points out that scaling back "has become institutionalized as a private, family-level response among dual-earner professional and managerial couples. Rather than seeing the time crunch as a public issue and seeking to change the way work and work hours are structured, couples are making their private accommodations."

Says Becker, assistant professor of sociology and women's studies at Cornell, "The fact that this is strictly a family affair suits business interests because it places the costs of adapting to social change on families instead of employers."

Becker and Moen's study is based on an analysis of 117 interviews with middle-income, dual-earner couples ranging in age from 21 to 67 years old; two-thirds had children. The findings come from the Cornell Couples and Careers Study, which drew on data from focus groups and in-depth interviews conducted in 1997 and 1998. The respondents are employees from seven upstate New York companies, two universities, three private firms, and two health care organizations. The study was conducted under the auspices of the Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute, which was founded in 1997 to study dual-earner couples' experiences and expectations in the context of a changing workforce and changing career paths. The study is part of an ongoing investigation of the way working couples are managing their lives.

About 40 percent of the professional couples studied said they coped with family-work responsibilities by having one spouse in a "job" while the other had a "career," the researchers report.

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