The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work
by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Metropolitan Books. 316 pp. $22.50

Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, is a sympathetic chronicler of the entry of women into the workforce and the growth of two-earner families. She has now discovered the darker side of these developments. Drawing on extensive interviews and observations at “Amerco,” an unnamed Midwestern company known for its “family-friendly” policies, Hochschild presents a dismal picture of the strain these policies have placed on the American family: children who march relentlessly to the rhythms of baby-sitters and daycare centers; husbands and wives who pass like ships in the night en route to and from work; new specialty services that perform various tasks in loco parentis, like finding playmates for children or putting together a family photo album; and contemporary “Dr. Spocks” who help parents prepare their pre-teens for long stretches spent home alone. If wholesome Midwestern families exist among Amerco’s employees, Hochschild either failed to find them or deemed them so rare as to be uninteresting.

It was not supposed to happen this way. Hochschild, like other feminist-minded observers, had expected the entry of large numbers of mothers into the workforce to be a boon to all. Women would finally enjoy the satisfactions of careers, and their families would benefit from some long-overdue shifting of the burdens of child-rearing from wives to husbands. Anxious to tap new female talent, businesses would do their part as well, adopting policies like family leave and subsidized day care so that parents could more easily balance household duties and the demands of work.

What went wrong? The conventional view, especially in liberal circles, is that today’s workers are compelled to neglect their families in order to make ends meet. But Hochschild has a different opinion: workers are spending more time on the job because they want to. Thanks to changes in management philosophy, the American office and factory floor have become much friendlier places, emphasizing flexibility and teamwork and placing a premium on employee morale. This transformation has bolstered employee productivity and commitment—just as its architects intended—but it has also, Hochschild concedes, made the workplace a good deal more humane. “In its engineered corporate cultures,” she writes, “capitalism has rediscovered communal ties,” not to mention the allure of well-landscaped grounds and airy, comfortable work spaces.

As bad luck would have it, moreover, all this has happened at a moment in American life when home has taken on the sort of tension and insecurity that used to be found on the job. Divorce, job mobility, and dual-career marriages have frayed family ties, and the more families have tried to cope with these pressures, the less relaxed, cooperative, and familiar they have become. No wonder work has become the place where many Americans prefer to spend their time.

What to do? Hochschild would like to see workers join forces behind something she calls a “time movement,” aimed at achieving “work-family balance.” Such a campaign would ultimately push for more generous laws on work hours, family leave, and vacation time. But its goal would also be cultural reform: overthrowing the standard corporate view (or, as Hochschild calls it, the “older, male-oriented” view) of what a career requires and—at long last—persuading men to take on far more responsibilities at home. This done, work would become less voracious, and family life more inviting.

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The Time Bind points to real problems. But the case that Hochschild makes is both exaggerated and incomplete. In the first place, her claim that large numbers of American families are caught in a “time bind,” with two-earner couples frantically trying to hold their lives together, is unconvincing. After all, roughly half of American mothers with children under seventeen still stay at home or work part-time. And as for full-time work, Amerco is hardly typical: to judge by Hochschild’s own numbers, its employees put in a much longer week and far more overtime than the national average. Thus, while the work habits that Hochschild observed at Amerco are undoubtedly not unique to that company, they are almost certainly uncharacteristic of the corporate world as a whole.

This is not to deny that Americans have tended to elevate work over home; but in addressing that phenomenon, Hochschild focuses exclusively on the enticements of corporate culture, letting off the hook a whole generation of social critics who have actively devalued family life. Today’s workforce may differ from that of previous generations not, as Hochschild argues, because women have absorbed the ambitions of men; the ambitious among both sexes have always devoted disproportionate amounts of time and energy to their jobs. Rather, today’s workers, having internalized new ideas about personal fulfillment, may simply no longer feel the competing pull of hearth and home to anything like the extent their parents did.

True, companies like Amerco have not helped matters by trying to make their employees more productive. But that, after all, is what corporations do. In this case, moreover, the driving force is not so much corporate greed (Hochschild’s diagnosis) as the need to do more with less in an increasingly competitive economy. Indeed, before Hochschild had completed her research, Amerco “de-hired” 10 percent of its workforce as part of a “reengineering process.” By adding new constraints to the ways businesses can use their workers, the “time movement” she calls for would only exacerbate the pressures that prompt such downsizing. A far better option would be to enhance the skills of employees through schooling and on-the-job training, enabling them to do more with less time and effort.

Still, there is no easy answer to the work-related difficulties of American families. As The Time Bind helpfully documents, the notion that men and women can easily balance the demanding responsibilities of job and family has proved, at least for a good many people, a damaging myth. Though Arlie Russell Hochschild is loath to admit it, in business as in personal life, one cannot have everything.

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