Widely noted demographic and sociological changes in the U.S. workforce, both public and private, over the last 40 years have gradually but increasingly focused attention on the need for workplace policies to assist employees in balancing work and family life. In previous decades, a widely shared "work-family dichotomy," based on rigid and demanding workplace requirements with no allowances for family demands, could hold sway largely because men comprised the majority of the workforce; most wives stayed at home to care for family responsibilities and otherwise support their husbands' careers (Bruce and Reed 1994; Kanter 1977). In the years since, however, that workforce has undergone a demographic sea change, reducing the share of male workers with this traditional support system to a minority and raising to majority status a wide variety of "nontraditional" employees (women, the disabled, the elderly, students, and men with family responsibilities) facing conflicts between rigid work demands and personal or family needs and responsibilities (Hudson Institute 1990).
Surveys over just the last 20 years (Families and Work Institute 1998a, 4) show that the labor force has become significantly "more balanced with respect to gender, older on average ... more racially and ethnically diverse." Further, they find (Families and Work Institute 1998a, 6) 85 percent of U.S. workers now "live with family members and have immediate, day-to-day family responsibilities off the job." Forty-six percent are parents of children under age 18 (20 percent of these are single parents); 67 percent of married fathers now have employed partners (compared to fewer than 50 percent in 1977); and 78 percent of all married employees have working spouses (another significant increase over 20 years ago). Twenty-five percent of all workers had provided special assistance to someone 65 years or older during the year preceding the 1997 survey, with 20 percent of all parents (the so-called "sandwich generation") assuming responsibility for both raising children and caring for elderly relatives.
Employees in nontraditional households such as these encounter great difficulties in balancing work and family life. Working women face well-documented conflicts resulting from their continuing role as primary caretakers for their homes, children, and/or elderly parents (Higgins, Duxbury, and Irving 1992; Hochschild 1989; Kelley and Voydanoff 1985), while husbands in dual-career households face new workplace stresses as they have assumed greater responsibility at home (Daddy Trap 1998; Families and Work Institute 1998a; Ginsberg 1998;). Similarly, older workers are often unwilling or physically unable to meet rigid, full-time work schedules, and employed students require flexible schedules or part-time work to complement their school schedules. Other nontraditional employees require similar flexibilities in the pursuit of work-family balance. Yet, while more and more workers are facing ever-greater family demands on their time, total working hours for all workers--and particularly for women and fathers--have increased over the last 20 years, and jobs themselves have become more demanding and less secure (Daddy Trap 1998; Families and Work Institute 1998a; Vincola 1998). The "time bind" created by the simultaneous rise in family and workplace pressures has been evident for several years (Galinsky, Bond, and Friedman 1996; Hochschild 1997; Schor 1991) and appears to be getting worse. More and more employees are expressing significant to severe stress over workload and worktime pressures (Brooks 1999; Families and Work Institute 1998a), and nearly two-thirds of all workers have expressed a preference for significantly fewer working hours (Families and Work Institute 1998a, 8).
Though the United States has been reluctant to adopt national policies requiring employers to limit working hours or to provide benefits to help employees meet their family and work responsibilities (Addison and Siebert 1991, 1994; Kamerman 1984; Steinberg and Cook 1988), the obvious stresses on employees attributed to these and looming demographic shifts (such as the prospect of massive baby boomer retirements in the face of a subsequently much-smaller working-age cohort), coupled with the pressures of global competition to hire and retain knowledge workers, have done much to encourage employers to voluntarily address workers' personal and family needs so as to recruit and retain good employees, and thereby enhance worker and organizational productivity. …