Work and Family Lives – Are They Different?

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Long ago, when life was simpler (or more likely, only in American mythology), the idea often arose that the concepts of work and of family were two distinctly different areas. In fact, Kanter (1977) describes this view in these words:

In a modern industrial society work life and family life constitute two separate and non-overlapping worlds, with their own function, territories, and behavioral rules. Each operates by its own laws and can be studied independently.

Many authors have demonstrated quite emphatically that even if those simpler times work exerted a heavy impact on family life. In a study of the Victorian period in England, Banks (1954) points out those so-called middle-class men often found it necessary to postpone marriage until their incomes had reached a level that would permit setting up a household commensurate with their social class. Further, as the costs of educating children increased for this middle-class group, family size was more restrictively controlled. Similarly, Rowntree (1922), studying working-class families in England at the turn of the century, notes that such individuals encountered a life cycle of five periods: starting with poverty during their childhood, then some relief as they or their siblings added to family income, succeeded by poverty as they started their own families, followed by some ease as the children's earnings augmented family income, and finally a return to poverty during older, declining years. During the period studied, Rowntree found that the average income for an unskilled worker was always a little less than that needed to support a family of moderate size at the minimal level.

Focusing on more recent events, Oppenheimer (1982) studied Public Use Samples from 1960 and 1970 Decennial Census Data of the United States in order to compare differences, according to male age level, in family data for eight occupational groups (professional, managerial, sales, clerical, craft, operative, service, and labor), further divided by income level. She particularly examined the interaction of family and career cycles with special attention given to three periods of economic stress produced by this interaction. She labeled these stress periods as life-cycle squeezes and concluded that most modern families face three such squeezes: the first at the time they are attempting to establish an independent household; the second when children reach the costliest period of maintenance, usually during adolescence; and the third in the postretirement period.

Adaptive Behaviors

Oppenheimer identified nine adaptive behaviors used by families to promote the replacement of the family over generations at the same or a higher socioeconomic level. These strategies are employed in various ways, often related to the occupational status of the family. They are applied by families to overcome or resolve the stress that can be expected to occur during one of the life-cycle squeezes identified above. These behavioral factors include the following:
  1. Non-marriage of some adult children.

  2. Age at marriage.

  3. Age at birth of the first child.

  4. Spacing of subsequent children.

  5. Total number of children born.

  6. Economic role of children.

  7. Economic role of wives and its timing.

  8. Economic role of husbands and its timing.

  9. Migration of individuals or families.
For example, it has not been uncommon in previous generations for one child in a family to delay or forego marriage in order to remain in the home and provide care or financial support for elderly or disabled parents caught in the third life-cycle squeeze. Oppenheimer points out the significance of the age of both husband and wife at the time of the first child's birth. The husband's age is important because it predicts his position in the career cycle when child-rearing costs will be most expensive, and the wife's age may suggest both family size and the likelihood of her entry or return to paid employment. Both the spacing of births of children and the total number of children in the family influence whether or when the mother enters or returns to paid employment as well as the severity and duration of the second life-cycle squeeze.

The adaptive behaviors identified by Oppenheimer are subject to the influence of various constraints that families may encounter. These include the following:
  1. Prevailing mortality and morbidity conditions.

  2. Fertility control capabilities.

  3. Family standard of living.

  4. Cost of raising children.

  5. Structure of economic opportunities for earnings.

  6. Non-familial sources of income and their relationship to the life cycle.
The interaction of applicable constraints on the available adoptive behaviors leads the family to develop strategies that appear to be appropriate. Influential factors in determining the chosen strategies are the social and economic conditions of the family, largely related to the male's occupational status. Oppenheimer's data showed that the various occupational groups selected strategies according to the career trajectory or pattern that represented that occupational group. She describes three groups in particular:

We will consider each of these groups briefly: High-income white-collar families, low-income blue-collar families, and low-income white-collar families.

Lifestyle Aspirations

High-income white-collar occupations (mostly professionals and managers) usually show a steeply rising income level with age and an aspiration for a high-level lifestyle. The families in these occupations are economically vulnerable early in their adult life because the first lifestyle squeeze is usually very stressful as a result of the high costs of establishing an independent household at a relatively high level of living. Children in these families contribute little or nothing to the economy of the family because they are involved in prolonged periods of education. The men in these occupations leave school later than the men in all other occupational groups. For example, Oppenheimer reports that her 1960 data showed that only 56 per cent of these men (mainly the managers) had completed their education by age twenty-one compared to 97 percent of all other men. By 1970 these figures had become 40 percent of those men versus 90 percent of all other men. These men marry later, have children later, and tend to have fewer children than men in other groups. However, these postponements and restrictions are less likely to occur when funds from other sources are available to the couple and they are willing to function at a lower standard of living for a period. Outside sources of funds might include subsidized education, grants from parents, loan funds, subsidized student housing, and the like. Since the 1960 and 1970 census data were collected, significant changes have occurred in the employment of women. One can speculate that women's increased involvement in income producing work may also have a notable impact on the age of marriage for this occupational group, with the wife's earnings providing major support during the period the husband is completing professional training.

Except for one group of skilled craft workers whose income placed them in a higher income level, most blue-collar workers studied by Oppenheimer were in the two lower-income levels. The blue-collar group included craft workers, operatives, service workers, and laborers. These workers generally had lower earnings, a rather flat age-to-earnings profile with an early and low peak, and a modest lifestyle. Any sharp increase in earnings for this group was likely to occur in their early years of employment unless they were able to capitalize on upward occupational mobility. The more common pattern of a flat profile with an early low peak also included some decline in income in later years. These families in general are often caught in a difficult bind resulting from delaying the first squeeze because of lack of financial resources to establish a home. When this delay occurs, the second squeeze is likely to be particularly severe because the increased child-rearing costs of that period may take place after earnings have started to decline and become more uncertain.

Some changes in technology point to an increase in on-the-job training of blue-collar workers, resulting in more job security and some relief from the double-bind squeeze. However, the drastic changes in many industries such as steel and automobile manufacture in the early 1980s may also indicate the continued vulnerability of blue-collar workers who cannot sell skills readily in periods of technological restructure.

This blue-collar lower-income group showed a pattern of early marriage and early childbirth, with the number of children somewhat related to external factors such as infant mortality. Most families demonstrated some reliance on income contribution by adolescent and young adult children living in the home, and some of these young adult children sometimes delayed or abandoned plans for marriage in order to help the parents financially.

The Conflict

Families are often caught in a conflict between short-term and long-term goals related to the overall welfare of the family--if children go to work early to assist with family finances, they often limit their schooling and commit themselves to a lifelong lower-level income. Prevailing social pressures, as well as child labor laws and school-leaving-age laws, now generally restrict early employment of children and appear to resolve this conflict by protecting the children. For example, Oppenheimer reports significant increases in the school leaving age each decade of this century, with 53 percent of the husbands born in 1896-1905 reporting in 1960 that they had left school by age thirteen, and only 8 percent of the 1936-1945 birth group reporting in 1970 a similar experience; and while 71 percent of the first group had left school by age sixteen, only 24 percent of the second group had done so.

Oppenheimer speculates that many blue-collar families may adopt strategies of delaying marriage and childbirth because more women are engaged in premarital employment. If the number of children in each family is also reduced, the wives may resume employment in larger numbers and in this way replace the economic support previously supplied to families by older children. However, successful application of the strategy may depend upon the level of education acquired earlier by the wife.

Of the three larger groups described by Oppenheimer, the lower-income white-collar families are often caught in the most difficult economic squeeze. They generally expect their children to attain a socioeconomic position equal to or greater than that of the parents. This aspiration usually means a higher school leaving age than that of the parents in order to obtain enough education to maintain an option for employment at least at the parents' level. The longer educational period usually results in delay in both marriage and childbearing and thus children make little or no economic contribution to the family. Wives generally have a higher educational background and often significant premarital work experience, thus making it easier for them to return to work or to maintain a position in the world of work. One result of this is that the number of children in each family in this group tends to be smaller than among the blue-collar families.

Oppenheimer describes several implications of the data she studied. One of these is that the societal emphasis on longer schooling for all children has intensified the burden on all families during the second squeeze and it has also increased the options for upward mobility for the children. While the pressure of the second squeeze has intensified, the economic security of middle-aged men has generally improved because of less demand for physical strength, increased job security, and better health care, thus partly offsetting the economic squeeze. Another factor of increasing importance has been the improved capability for more effectively controlling the number and timing of children. This factor exerts influence on the extent to which women can participate in work. This, in turn, requires changes in the way that women work--the kinds of jobs they hold, the access to training and work, the opportunity for advancement in work. If families develop plans based on greater work involvement by women, that planning will generally require more consistency in work and less intermittent involvement.

While Oppenheimer was studying census data to ascertain the impact of work on family life, Davis (1982) was engaged in an intensive study of relatively small sample of families to study the same problem. Oppenheimer provides a picture of that influence on a broad scale and Davis looks at what might be called the "nitty-gritty" effect. She interviewed members of thirty couples, always talking with the wife and frequently with the husband. She used only families that included both husband and wife and at least one child under age eighteen. Half (53 percent) of the families consisted of four people, 20 percent consisted of three members, 17 percent were five member families, and 10 percent had six or more members. Among thirty husbands, four were students and twenty-six were employed full time. Among the wives, eleven were employed full-time, four were employed part-time, two were full-time students, and thirteen were full-time housewives. All were white, lived in the San Francisco area, and were relatively highly educated, with 40 percent of the husbands holding advanced degrees and 33 percent of the wives holding bachelor degrees and 12 percent with advanced degrees. The husbands reported that they worked an average of 51.9 hours weekly and the full-time employed wives reported an average of 40 hours.

Major Concern

Davis particularly studied the day-in and day-out effect of work on the lives of the family members. She concluded that the rational, organized work world "out there" and the emotionally oriented family group "in here" cannot be kept separate but instead constantly interact with each other. Assuming the traditional view that housework is a full-time job conducted by the wife while the husband is engaged in full-time employment outside the home, she looked for changes in family life produced by changes in that traditional arrangement. One major concern was the change in family life brought about by the increased participation of women in employment-in other words, if the housewife isn't home during the day, who is doing the housework?

Davis points out that every link between a family member and any outside activity such as work, school, clubs or organizations, leisure activities, volunteer efforts, or whatever, places a constraint on that person and to some extent influences or even overrides family concerns. The most influential factors are those viewed as mandatory such as work and school. She clearly describes the problem faced by many wives thus:

The whole situation becomes particularly complicated when the wife takes on important external commitments. A husband who works long hours outside the home can justify the neglect of his domestic duties by claiming that he is performing his chief function of breadwinning with extra zeal. This is not true for the wife. She is supposed to assign highest priority to family duties. This then is the modern woman's dilemma. If she goes out to work and consequently neglects her family, she is morally reprehensible. If she works but refuses to neglect her family, she probably never will progress very far with her career. If she does not go out to work, she denies herself the primary avenue in modern society for obtaining prestige, self-validation, and other important rewards.

In the traditional family, external commitments that might be considered optional, such as volunteer activities or involvement in organizations or clubs, still produce an impact on the family schedule and the time available for family matters. The employed wife is likely to have similar commitments plus the mandatory pressures that come with employment. If she is a dual-earner, a worker who works for income, or the satisfaction that accompanies work, or for social or other reasons, she may be able to limit or control some of the employment pressures. If, however, she is a dual-career person, a worker dedicated to the advancement of her career, she will face a myriad of work-related pressures similar to those encountered by the career-oriented husband. Mead (1982) reports that dual-earner and dual-career couples identify their most pressing problems to be related to time management, and traditional couples list first economic matters.

Davis describes many factors that influence family functions and the amount of housework that must be completed to maintain the family. For example, the more children in the family, and the younger their ages, the more hours of housework likely to be required. The size and nature of the living quarters is another factor, as is the presence of modern technology in the form of freezers, microwave ovens, laundry facilities, etc. Families who include production functions such as bread baking, food canning, and furniture and clothing making require more hours than families that engage only in maintenance activities such as superficial cleaning, tidying, and minor repair. Further influences include individual preferences and skills-some prefer elaborate dinners cooked from scratch while others choose hotdogs and TV dinners. Obviously, within the family, some housekeeping duties are clearly optional; however, even minimal maintenance of the family requires the mandatory commitment of some time to these functions.

Families with both husband and wife employed were more likely to organize housework than were one-earner families. Organization involves planning, setting schedules, and assigning tasks in ways very similar to the external workplace. Two-earner families were found to do most housework on the weekend while single-earner families followed the reverse pattern with most housework hours occurring during the work week.

Gender Roles

As more wives enter employment, a question arises regarding who does what housework. Gender roles have been recognized in family maintenance activities for many decades, with traditional families often assigning outdoors or time-controlled activities such as lawn-mowing, snow-shoving, painting, and automobile care to the husband and daily care activity such as cooking, sweeping, dusting, picking up, laundry, and so forth to the wife. Scanzoni and Fox (1980) report that during the decade of the seventies, some shift away from this traditional position was seen in terms of both attitude and behavior, although considerable distance appears to remain between present behavior and a more equitable future.

Studies of changing gender role seem to produce results according to the approach used in the study. According to Davis, studies asking about relative amounts of time spent on various household chores tend to show that husbands of employed wives do more housework than husbands or wives not employed, although in both cases the wife remains responsible for most of it. Studies that ask for reports of absolute amounts of time spent by keeping daily activity logs or time-budget studies show very little, if any, increased effect on husband's housework time as a result of the wife's employment. In families with adolescent children, the major transfer of housework duties is to the children rather than to the husband.

Davis found in an earlier 1972 study that husbands contributed two and one-half minutes of housework for each hour the wife was employed outside the home. By 1976 the time had increased to five minutes for each hour of employment. The greatest change occurs in the amount of time spent by the wife: each hour of outside employment reduces her average time spent on housework by twenty-three minutes. Thus the wife who is employed for a typical eight-hour day will spend three hours less time per day on housework than will her non-employed counterpart.

Davis found that traditionally minded couples felt that it was appropriate for a married woman to work outside the home provided that young children were not part of the family, and further provided that her work did not interfere in any way with her family duties. Also they felt it was appropriate for a husband to help the wife with housework if she was especially busy, but the helping should be viewed as a personal favor and not as a sharing of responsibility. Egalitarian families felt that families should be free to decide who does what task, even reversing earning roles if they desire. Davis found a third group with mixed viewpoints who generally expressed egalitarian beliefs but practiced rather traditional behavior. For example, some said that husband and wife should share household duties when both worked full-time, but ideally the husband should earn enough so that the wife didn't have to work. Within the thirty couples, almost all of the employed wives held either egalitarian or mixed views, and the non-employed rives held traditional or mixed views. The husbands of employed wives were most likely to be egalitarian, and smaller but equal sized groups were traditional or mixed. Husbands of non-employed wives were more likely to hold a mixed view in contrast with their wives' traditional or mixed view. Actual behavior appeared to be more a product of practical pressures such as time limitations than of ideological view.

An implication seen in the evidence appears to be that greater time reassured on families as a result of more hours spent in employed status will add to greater organization of family activity, especially attempting to increase efficiency and to make better choices of time usage. Further, it is clear that involvement in work does affect the domestic activities of family members--the functions performed, and when and how they are performed. In many families work tends to dominate family life.

One of the most significant changes in the labor force during the past decade has been the increase in the number of women engaged in full-time employment outside the home. It is clearly apparent that the pattern is no longer one of traditional pre-marriage or pre-childbearing involvement, but instead reflects a much longer and more consistent participation. Some women will undoubtedly select a dual-earner role that will permit them to "give primacy to spouse and family; many, however, will opt for a dual-career pattern wherein job responsibilities will require a heavy commitment of time and energy. Regardless of the type of involvement, either will require adjustments in attitudes and behaviors within the family. Levinson (1978), discussing the development of adult men, observed that one of the paradoxes of life is the fact that one is required to make choices and major decisions (referring to occupation and love relationship) before one is really prepared to make them. Starting one's occupational activity and also one's marriage when both members of a couple are engaged in employment requires cooperation, understanding, tolerance, and much flexibility.

Many strategies for solving the problems faced by two-worker families are already beginning to appear. These include job-sharing, in which two people divide the responsibilities of a single job, and the development of home-based work centers in which the individual, using technology such as computers, fulfills the job requirements at home rather than at the office. Other strategies include maternity and paternity leave, creation of child-care centers at places of work, year-round school programs, and flexible work schedules.

Another recent phenomenon has been the increase in single-parent families, largely produced by rising divorce rates. The relationship between work and family becomes even more complex in this situation since the one adult has total responsibility for both aspects. Work is usually an economic necessity, and family relationships are often strained and exacerbated by the absence of the missing family member. It is almost inevitable that problems and difficulties in one area will impinge on the other.
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