"Family Values" & the Shorter Work Week

by Arlie Russell Hochschild
(Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997), 316pp.

Reviewed by Joanne Landy

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 24, Winter 1998]

Joanne Landy is on the editorial board of New Politics and President of the New York-based Campaign for Peace and Democracy.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LABOR'S STRUGGLE FOR A SHORTER WORK WEEK? Should a renewed call for fewer and more flexible working hours be justified primarily by pointing to the needs of working families? Should women be urged to subordinate their work outside the home to their role as mothers? Do contemporary feminism and the left have a radical critique of "family values" and society's view of the home, work, and needs of women? How can we invent a better future?

Arlie Hochschild's latest book invites us to confront all of these questions. She argues that, as women have entered the labor force in massive numbers over the past three decades, they have unfortunately embraced the male view of work as an opportunity to escape from life at home. Because working mothers are adopting the traditional male belief that work is superior to family life, Hochschild says, they are making the disastrous mistake of failing to resist corporate demands for inflexible hours and full-time work. Children are the chief victims of this trend; they are suffering from what she calls a "time famine" because both parents are away from home so much of the day.

In the interest of America's children, then, Hochschild calls for men and women to join together in building a "time movement" to force corporations to adopt family-friendly policies, particularly in regard to scheduling work time. Earlier time movements, such as the struggle for the eight-hour day, didn't focus on the family -- perhaps, Hochschild suggests, because most unionized workers (generally male) in those days were not directly responsible for the care of their children. She says that this time around the claims of family must be central to the demand for shorter and more flexible working hours.

Hochschild's assertion that American women are voluntarily choosing to work longer hours is based on research she conducted over three years at a Fortune 500 corporation she calls "Amerco" to protect the anonymity of the company and the 130 employees she interviewed. Amerco was nationally known for its family-friendly policies, so Hochschild was struck by the fact that very few employees actually took advantage of its offer of flextime, part-time work, parental leave and other accommodations to working parents.

The failure of working mothers at Amerco to cut back on their hours could not be attributed primarily to economic pressures or to coercion from Amerco management, Hochschild says. Rather, she writes, her interviews showed that these women often felt that work was a haven from domestic tensions, tensions that to a significant extent were caused by the refusal of their husbands to take their share of responsibility for the home. By putting in many hours of work themselves, women were trying to force their husbands to do more childcare and housework.

Hochschild never confronts the possibility that many women work long hours because they find a high degree of fulfillment in their jobs. In contrast to her general point of view, consider Katha Pollitt's insightful remarks in a recent Nation article (November 24, 1997):

...working mothers have to stop apologizing. We should dismantle the notion that in the best of all possible worlds, we would all be staying home....We need to say that women work not just to keep the wolf from the door but because we enjoy our jobs, our salaries, the prospect of a more interesting and secure future than we would have with rusted skills, less seniority, less experience...
(Pollitt was commenting on the Massachusetts "nanny trial" in the fall of 1997, a subject to which we will return.)

Hochschild is doubtless right that women sometimes work more than they need to or enjoy, in an attempt to make it harder for their husbands to evade their domestic obligations; in my view -- though she would probably disagree -- this is a highly legitimate strategy for women in a society that tells men in so many ways that they are entitled to do little or nothing at home. Hochschild's contention that more and more working mothers in this country work long hours largely because they see their jobs as a way to get away from the tensions of an unresolved domestic gender war may be completely true for some women and partially true; nevertheless, for many the trend she describes is vastly overdrawn.

HOCHSCHILD'S THESIS IS BASED ON SLIM EVIDENCE INDEED. In the first place, Amerco is hardly typical of American business, so it is difficult to generalize from its experience. The companies most women work for don't even claim to offer flexible or reduced work hours to meet the personal or family needs of their employees. But reading what Amerco's employees told Hochschild about the realities of life at this much-touted progressive corporation casts doubt on whether her thesis is true even there: beneath the veneer of the company's liberalism, those who sought more time for themselves or their families often endangered not only their ability to get ahead but their very job security. Hochschild admits that top-level executives at Amerco as well as supervisors on the ground were frequently hostile to the implementation of officially-endorsed policies allowing flextime, parental leave, job-sharing and shorter hours. Moreover, Amerco workers reported that the culture of the company rewarded "face time," i.e. the number of hours people worked on site, and employees who put in less than full time -- in fact, who failed to work extra hours -- would rarely be properly recognized or compensated by the company. In addition, the threat of relocation of Amerco's manufacturing facility hung over hourly employees: one such worker, whom Hochschild calls Becky Winters, told her that she was afraid that the company might move operations to Mexico (p.154). Only a foolhardy employee would single herself out for negative attention by working fewer hours if radical downsizing loomed on the horizon.

Most Amerco workers were not as explicit as Becky about being afraid of layoffs. In fact, most said in interviews with Hochschild that when they chose to work full-time in standard shifts they weren't motivated by such fears (p.29), assertions that Hochschild takes at face value. But she herself notes that in fact 10 percent of Amerco's total work force were given pink slips in January 1995, just five years after Hochschild started her research. While there may have been no way of predicting with certainty that these layoffs were in the offing, the pervasiveness of downsizing during the last few years meant that most workers with even a minimal level of awareness at Amerco or any other enterprise cannot have been unmindful that they risked unemployment -- whether or not they openly expressed their apprehension.

In fact, in addition to fears of layoffs, stagnating and, in many instances, declining wages in the last 20 years have also pushed large numbers of women to work full time. Nonetheless much research shows that, despite economic constraints many workers -- male and female -- would work shorter hours if they could, again contradicting Hochschild's thesis. For example, in her 1995 article in Nieman Reports, Juliet Schor notes that polls taken in the previous ten years show that 15 to 17 percent of all workers would prefer to work fewer hours, even if it meant less money -- but would have to change jobs in order to do so. In a survey Schor conducted at Bell South in Atlanta, half the respondents said it was impossible for them to change hours within their current jobs, and another 25 percent said it would be very difficult -- though more than a fifth of them would work less if they could. Other studies reveal similar findings: for example, one cited by Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers in their critical discussion of The Time Bind in the Fall 1997 issue of Dissent shows that of 6,000 workers at Du Pont, 50 percent of women and 45 percent of men took some version of flexible hours or stayed in jobs that would give them time with their families. A study at Merck found comparable results. (In this issue of New Politics, Chris Tilly shows that close to 4 million American workers currently working full time would rather work less, but can't due to employer inflexibility.)

Putting together evidence from Amerco and data from the larger American work force, Hochschild's assertion that mothers work as much as they do primarily because they want to is highly simplistic at best. But the more fundamental problem with The Time Bind is Hochschild's belief that there is something wrong with women having the desire to spend the bulk of their time away from home -- whether in a rewarding job or in pursuing other personal interests. While she never baldly states this view, it pervades the book, with accusatory words like "escape" used to describe women's motives for being at work for many hours, and inevitably pejorative terms like "outsourcing" and "deskilling" employed to describe mothers' ingenuity in finding new ways to meet many of their children's needs while they are at work.

HOCHSCHILD NOTES THAT FOR MANY WOMEN, MEANINGFUL FRIENDSHIPS often blossom on the job, but rather than being pleased by such relationships she seems uneasy about this and other "family-like ties of workers" (p.42), whether encouraged by the company or undertaken spontaneously by co-workers. For her the growing attractions of the workplace are part of the menacing process of work becoming home and home becoming work that she signals in the title of the book. The American home is being undermined, bit by bit:

There are many substitutes for family services -- summer camp for children or retirement homes for the elderly, to mention two -- that have already become acceptable features of modern life...Some of these replace the practical activities of a 1950s housewife. In some parts of the country, a family can now phone in a dinner order to a child's daycare center in the morning and pick up both the child and the meal (in an ovenproof container) in the evening. Bright Horizons [a daycare company working with corporations around the country] offers a dry-cleaning service based on the same principle...A Centreville, Maryland service called Kids in Motion gets children from school to after-school activities. Beck and Call, an errand-running service based in Warren, New Jersey, does "just about any errand you can think of"...The time-starved mother (sic) is being forced more and more to choose between being a parent and buying a commodified version of parenthood from someone else. (pp. 230-232)

Hochschild's dismay is palpable. But why is she so distressed by what others (including myself) would see as liberatory assistance available -- and none too soon -- to harried working parents? It is difficult not to conclude that she is drawn to the image of the old-style family with mother in her place protecting the home -- described by Christopher Lasch as "a haven in a heartless world." Though elsewhere in The Time Bind (and more forcefully and unambiguously in her far superior 1989 book The Second Shift) she states that she favors equally-shared responsibility by both parents, the nostalgia comes through loud and clear in another passage:

If Total Quality [the new social engineering and team work strategy employed by many corporations] called for "reskilling" the worker in an "enriched" job environment, capitalism and technological developments have long been gradually deskilling parents at home. Over time, store-bought goods have replaced homespun cloth, homemade soap and candles, home-cured meats and home-baked foods. Instant mixes, frozen dinners, and take-out meals have replaced Mother's recipes. Daycare for children, retirement homes for the elderly, wilderness camps for delinquent children, even psychotherapy are, in a way, commercial substitutes for jobs a mother once did in the home. If, under Total Quality, "enriched" jobs call for more skill at work, household chores have over the years become fewer and easier to do. (p.209)

Oh, for the days when we spent hour after hour making our own soap and candles!

Hochschild fails to come to terms with the challenges of the radical feminism of the 1960s and 70s to society's assumptions about family and child-rearing. True women's emancipation makes the old family model, or anything resembling it, impossible. The essential character of that kind of family arose out of the fact that the child's primary parent believed she should derive her core sense of identity from being a mother. Even if men share equally in domestic responsibilities -- a minimum requirement for women's broader equality -- mature adults, female or male, cannot be expected to submerge their identities in their children as the stay-at-home mom once did, or was supposed to.

Reading Hochschild makes me wonder what happened to the visionary thinking about childrearing that absorbed so many of our hours in the 60s and 70s. Rather than worrying that the modern socially-engineered workplace has become a seductive alternative to the home, as it seems Hochschild does, people concerned with women's liberty need to think about ways to fulfill children's needs for love, warmth and attention that take into account the strong probability that in general neither men nor women, if they are free to choose, will find a life revolving mainly around their children fully satisfying. This doesn't mean that emancipated parents won't love their children, but under conditions of freedom it is likely that most will love them as part of lives filled with concerns and relationships outside as well as within the home, on and off the job. In turn, parents need not be the only adults caring for children: extended families, friends and neighbors, people who don't want to have children but would like to be with them on a more limited basis -- all of these, in addition to well-trained, well-paid and well-respected childcare workers, could share in raising the young.

The Time Bind is an ambiguous book, conveying the ambivalence of its author. Hochschild does say that there is no turning back: women are in the workplace to stay, and happier when they work outside the home. But the thrust and tone of the book point in the opposite direction: the way she deals with the question of childcare exemplifies this fact. While, at one point, Hochschild seems accepting of childcare for up to six or seven hours a day, and mentions, if only in passing, that many European governments devote substantial resources to subsidizing childcare for working parents, it is significant that she gives very little attention to how to launch a crusade to make childcare in America more affordable, more accessible, and of better quality. In today's climate, with its virulent right-wing attack on working mothers and childcare in the name of "family values" -- the sharp attacks on the child's working mother in the Massachusetts nanny trial is a case in point -- such an attitude is very damaging to mothers who are making enormous progress today in freeing themselves from a legacy of terrible sexist subordination. It is critical to defend childcare as an indispensable element of women's emerging liberation, even as we insist on improvement in its quality through increased levels of governmental support and higher wages for those who care for children.

Arlie Hochschild is right when she says we need a time movement to turn back growing corporate demands for overtime and, beyond resistance, to demand flexible work schedules and a shorter work week. And she is right to challenge the labor movement, feminists, and all who can see how important it is to fight for a workplace that doesn't cannibalize people's lives, to conduct such a struggle.

But how should we frame such a time movement in America, as we join our counterparts in Europe who are mounting a struggle for a shorter work week? Many on the left and even some in the women's movement seem to think that we can outsmart and outflank the right by rationalizing the demand for shorter hours first and foremost in terms of the needs of working families. But this is a short-sighted strategy that cedes crucial ground to the "family values" gang, and it will inevitably come back to haunt us if we try to pursue it. Of course, workers with people dependent on them -- whether children, elderly parents, ill spouses or spouse equivalents -- have special needs for time that employers should be required by a determined coalition of working people and the broader public to accommodate. But the core justification for a shorter work week, for flexible hours, for substantial vacations and for frequent sabbaticals for all working people should be the simple, unadorned fact that in addition to decent jobs and meaningful work individuals need an abundance of free time for their lives off the job. We shouldn't be afraid to state this obvious but very anti-capitalist truth, for the sake both of our immediate futures and of the new socialist society we hope to build.

The author wishes to thank Jesse Lemisch.

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