Dramatic changes in the workforce participation of women and men and, to a lesser extent, in the division of labor in the home have occurred in recent decades. The traditional family of the male breadwinner and female homemaker, the norm among middle-class married couples in the 1950s and 1960s, evolved into families where both the husband and wife often work for pay—the dual-earner family or dual-income family. Dual-earner families include two-career couples and couples who do not see their jobs as careers. Careers differ from jobs in requiring a deeper commitment of time, energy, and education; the payoffs are higher salaries. Thus, despite the difficulties dual-earner families experience because of career demands, the added income can buy many services.
Working wives and mothers are not new. Since the 1850s working-class, minority, and immigrant women have found employment as factory laborers or domestic servants, or have taken in boarders or laundry or performed other home-based jobs. What is new are the numbers of middle-class women and mothers of preschool children who are employed outside the home. Among adults today, dual earners comprise over 60 percent of all families compared with 30 percent with one earner. In 1963, the reverse was true, with 60 percent of families having one earner.
Currently, over 70 percent of married mothers of preschoolers work for pay at least part-time, and one third of these mothers are full-time employees. Their paychecks lift some families out of poverty and permit others to enjoy a middle-class standard of living. Typically, the family income for dual-earner households is twice that of single earners at similar skill levels.
The experiences of dual-earner couples are both positive and problematic. When their jobs are challenging and provide status and autonomy, mothers and fathers feel involved and they experience positive self-esteem at work and at home. These women work not because they are unhappy at home but because they gain personal satisfaction from the job.
However, dual-income parents tend to work long hours and are forced to sacrifice time with their families to satisfy the demands of the workplace. U.S. dual-earner couples work an average of 81 hours per week, and 12 percent of couples work 100 or more hours per week. Forty-one percent of the couples report going to work early or working late, nearly 60 percent take work home, and 54 percent report that they feel pressured to keep up.
Employed parents complain that there are not enough hours in the day—they feel “harried” and “hurried.” Such working parents remain connected via their cell phone, Blackberry, or laptop; many often go to work early, stay late, and carry work home. The long hours and spillover of work into the home drains parents emotionally and leaves them feeling stressed and resentful of their work intruding into family life.
Although both men and women struggle to balance work and family and men currently do more housework than previous male cohorts, women still do almost twice as much housework as men. Among couples with children, especially young children, the women spend more time on child care. Typically the woman makes the greater adjustment, reducing her work hours or even leaving the workforce. As children grow older, many women increase their work hours, but usually their work hours will never again match those of their spouses.
Tradition also continues when couples are faced with making choices between his and her career. In one sample of professional couples, the career of the husband was most often given priority over the wife’s career. Husbands are more likely than wives to travel for work and relocate their families for a new job; mothers are more concerned about disrupting family life than are fathers. Moreover, relocation moves can lead to underemployment for the wife, and having young children at home also decreases the probability that the mother will travel for work.
However, there is an upside to being in a dual-earner couple. Studies show that, in addition to enjoying enhanced self-esteem and a buffer from home stress, women who are employed full-time experience less anxiety and depression and report better physical health than full-time homemakers.
How do husbands respond to their wives’ employment? Some men are relieved to share economic responsibilities and to have added income. Others feel emasculated and may lower their share of housework. Not surprisingly, divorce rates are higher for dual-earner than for single-earner couples. This higher divorce rate may reflect the difficulties in negotiating the division of labor, as well as reflecting the wife’s ability to support herself and, therefore, to leave an unhappy marriage. Sharing household work is especially important for the emotional health and marital satisfaction of working wives, benefits that also accrue to husbands.
Who Cares for the Children?
Child care arrangements are another major consideration in the dual-earner family. Studies indicate that almost half of all children are cared for by the husband or wife when the couple works split shifts; a grandparent may take over if both are working at the same time.
Another 20 percent of children are cared for in a private residence, called family day care. Only 30 percent of children are in a formal day care center at the mother’s place of work, operated by a nonprofit community organization, or run by a commercial chain.
Regardless of the type or quality of the child care center, all suffer from extremely high staff turnover, primarily due to low pay. By contrast, in most Western European countries, preschool is universal and publicly funded, and the teachers earn the same pay and prestige as kindergarten teachers. Year-round child care workers in the United States are paid about half of what public school teachers earn. U.S. parents fend for themselves, a situation that strongly favors wealthier families who can afford quality child care.
When the shortcomings of the U.S. day care system are explored, the media and some political leaders tend to blame working parents, especially working mothers. Critics tend to focus on the behavioral problems of some children rather than the research, which indicates that the great majority of youngsters (83 percent) show no significant behavioral problems. Children’s language skills and other cognitive abilities also improved when the children were in day care for 20 hours or more per week. Child advocates contend that investing more money in universal, early childhood education would benefit children from low-income families and could narrow the education and income gaps that grow wider as the children age.
Managing Work-Family Conflict
Another solution to help dual earners balance competing demands, which today may also include the needs of aging parents, lies in supportive workplace policies. Many mothers prefer a schedule that reflects the local school day. The relatively few U.S. corporations that have instituted “family friendly” policies such as flexible time schedules, part-time work with benefits, compressed workweeks, and job sharing, have benefited from lower absenteeism, lower turnover, higher employee morale, and increases in psychological and physical health.
Studies show that the most egalitarian relationships in dual-earner families occur when both husbands and wives find work that requires a “moderate amount of time,” allowing them to balance work and family demands. Working long hours is not necessarily desirable, and at least one study found that 64 percent of mothers are actually interested in working part-time.
However, many employers and employees believe that only full-time workers are seriously committed to the company and their careers and are therefore resistant to such changes. Most experts agree that there is a dramatic need to change the culture of the workplace, which now requires employees to work unconditionally and place work demands above family concerns. What many sociologists have shown is that work-family conflicts are structural problems, stemming from existing institutional arrangements, not from individual shortcomings. If middle-class families with considerable resources experience problems in balancing their work and home lives, parents with more limited resources struggle even more.
Dual-earner families need a more equitable balance between the demands of work and family life. The major challenge for U.S. newlyweds today is to find that mutually compatible balance between bread-winning and home and child care tasks.
- Glass, Jennifer. 2000. “Envisioning the Integration of Family and Work: Toward a Kinder, Gentler Workplace.” Contemporary Sociology 29:129-43.
- Jacobs, Jerry and Kathleen Gerson. 2004. The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Moen, Phyllis, ed. 2003. It’s about Time: Couples and Careers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Schneider, Barbara and Linda J. Waite, eds. 2005. Being Together, Working Apart: Dual-Career Families and the Work-Life Balance. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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