Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Work of Families: The Provision of Market and Household Labor and the Role of Public Policy

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Work of Families: The Provision of Market and Household Labor and the Role of Public Policy

Article excerpt


The work of families need not be burdensome. Long hours and low pay may result in drudgery, but family life need not be stressful, oppressive, or patriarchal. There are clear alternatives to the current work of families. These alternatives would result in less commercial interference with family life, more alternatives in work and leisure, and an improved environment for decision making at both the family and community level.

The work of families has been the focus of numerous academic and lay discussions, most commonly emphasizing the frenzied pace and time constraints faced by dual-earner households (Bluestone and Rose 1997a; Schor 1991; Hochschild 1997). It is increasingly being recognized that the work of families takes place within two arenas: the paid labor market and the unpaid sphere of household labor. The challenge currently facing families is that these two spheres of life are increasingly disparate and disjointed, representing mutually exclusive alternatives for families struggling to earn a living wage and to fulfill their social reproduction functions.

It is our contention that the family's ability to perform both its economic and institutional functions has been severely curtailed by the increased commodification of individual labor. The encroachment of the market into the family has required an increased work effort on the part of individual family members as participants in the paid labor market. Simultaneously, it has made social reproduction more difficult, as the family struggles to fulfill its social contract responsibilities in an environment devoid of institutional support for these non-market functions.

Individual or family choice with respect to paid and unpaid labor has largely been removed, as families must operate within a narrow range of alternatives prescribed by industrial society. Specifically, this lack of alternatives is generated by the actions and interactions of three social forces that shape the economic landscape: (1) family organization rooted in patriarchy; (2) the market system; and (3) the social policies of the state. The patriarchal family structure has remained largely unchanged, even as familial responsibilities in the paid labor market have undergone a dramatic transformation. The market system has been slow to provide mechanisms by which family members can be effective agents in both the labor market and at home. In addition, the market has exacerbated the problem by creating an environment in which family members must labor longer in both spheres by transforming the labor market from a complex institution to a spot market where labor is treated as any other commodity. Finally, social policy has not been adequate to the task presented by these changes. The government has not adopted the role of "protector" in creating institutions that inhibit the commodification of modern labor or that would further the transformation of gender roles in families. The minor efforts made by the government to bring gender equality and relief from the market burdens that families face have not effectively broadened family or individual choice.

The restriction of choice does not simply place additional stress on individual families as they struggle to fulfill their responsibilities. Society is stressed as well, as the interaction of these three forces diminishes the family's ability to perform the unpaid work that forms the basis of community: the production of social capital and the performance of caring labor (Folbre 1995; Himmelweit 1995; Hewlett and West 1998).

The purpose of this article is to synthesize the evidence concerning the trends in hours spent in both paid and unpaid labor, and the consequences of these trends, both for the family and society. The analysis segments families into three types: dual-earner, male-earner, and female-earner. The data presented tell compelling stories about a family structure rooted in patriarchy, the increasing encroachment of the market into family life, and the government's lack of family friendly social policies, all of which serve to undermine the family's range of choices with respect to time allocations. …

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