Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Overworked Families? Changes in the Paid Working Hours of Families with Young Children, 1986 to 2001

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Overworked Families? Changes in the Paid Working Hours of Families with Young Children, 1986 to 2001

Article excerpt


Internationally, there is much research interest in the potential challenges associated with overwork within households, particularly for parents raising children. New Zealand census data show that, when individuals are considered, average hours of paid work for employed women and men changed very little between 1986 and 2001. Yet, in this time period, there were significant changes in both employment rates for women and men and a polarisation of hours of work among these individuals. Further affecting household working hours have been changes in family structure. When total hours of work for both single parents and couple families with young children are considered, a polarisation of hours of work is also evident. However, the shift to long hours was larger than the growth in short hours, while the average hours worked by couples with young children also increased. These findings help explain why many sole parents and couples feel that paid working time has increased and, conversely, that family time has decreased. The paper concludes by examining policy options available to governments in order to curb long working hours.


International research indicates that over the past couple of centuries the average hours spent by individuals in paid work have reduced (Bosch and Lehndorff 2001). Yet, in the last decade, concerns about overwork in New Zealand have re-emerged (e.g. Department of Labour 2004, New Zealand Council of Trade Unions 2002). A comparison of the proportion of employees working 50 or more hours per week among a selection of OECD countries shows that New Zealand has one of the highest proportions of workers putting in long hours of paid work (Messenger 2004). Some of the concerns about long hours of paid work relate to workplace health and safety issues, while others focus on the possible negative effect on families and children (Dawson et al. 2001, Golden and Jorgensen 2002, Pocock 2001, White and Beswick 2003).

This paper has four aims. The first is to document changes between 1986 and 2001 in hours of paid work by New Zealand families with preschool children. While this includes employed sole parents and employed child-rearing couples, most of the attention is placed on couples given that there has been no significant research on the total working hours of couples in New Zealand.

Second, the paper canvasses possible explanations for the increase in working hours. This is primarily to assess whether shifts in hours worked reflect changing working-hour preferences or whether there are other drivers of change. Third, drawing on a variety of studies, some of the effects of increased working hours on unpaid work--including childcare and, ultimately, on child outcomes--are outlined. The final part of the paper highlights policy options available to governments wishing to curb long working hours, particularly among parents.

While this paper focuses on "overwork", any research on balancing paid work and family responsibilities in employed families needs to be set against an overall polarisation in employment; that is, the division of child-rearing families into either "work-rich" (i.e. all adults are in paid work) or "work-poor" (i.e. all adults are jobless). Singley and Callister (2003), using Statistics New Zealand's Household Labour Force Survey data, have shown that while by 2002 strong economic growth had reduced household joblessness back to near 1986 levels, other trends were of potential concern. In particular, between 1986 and 2002 joblessness rose substantially among households in which all working-aged members were Maori, and joblessness also became more concentrated in child-rearing and prime-aged (25-49 years) households. While jobless households, and involuntary underwork in general, are also an important policy concern, they are not addressed in this paper.


Although a wider programme of research uses data from the 1986, 1991, 1996 and 2001 New Zealand Censuses of Population and Dwelling, this paper focuses on changes between 1986 and 2001. …

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