Understanding changes in American working time: A synthesis

Jerry A. Jacobs, Kathleen Gerson

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    Time on the job is a central and increasingly contested terrain in the lives of Americans. Working time sets the framework for both work and family life, and since time is not an expandable resource, long hours at the workplace must inevitably take time away from the rest of life. Long schedules of sixty hours a week or more mean that a worker is forced to scramble for time at home, inevitably missing even simple daily rituals such as breakfast or dinner with family and friends. Yet short workweeks of thirty hours or less, which offer more time for private pursuits, are not likely to provide the financial support most families need. Working time is thus basic to understanding broader aspects of changes in work-family relationships. Many Americans appear to feel more pressed for time than ever before. Since the early 1990s, when Juliet Schor's The Overworked American (1991) hit a nerve in the American imagination, popular and academic concern about the time squeeze has continued to grow. The sense that the pace of life is increasingly hectic has prompted a burgeoning field of research on the difficulties facing contemporary workers as they try to resolve the competing demands of work and family. Curiously, despite the concern for time-squeezed Americans, official statistics suggest that little if any change has occurred in the average workweek over the last several decades. Some time-diary researchers, such as John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey (1999), have even argued that a more important trend is the growth of leisure time. Does this mean that the common perception is simply wrong? Are the statistics skewed for some reason? Do the time squeezes of contemporary life stem from other social changes rather than from working time per se? How can we reconcile these divergent views? This essay offers a framework for resolving these debates and apparent contradictions. Drawing on findings presented in our book, The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Inequality ( Jacobs and Gerson 2004), it presents some of our most central conclusions about how to understand the causes, contours, and consequences of changes in working time over the last several decades.1 In so doing, we aim to offer a more inclusive and coherent picture of these important social trends. Our analysis shows that time pressures are indeed real, but they have different roots than those suggested by Schor. We also find that no single trend can capture the variety of changes that characterize the labor force as a whole. Instead, it is more useful to see time as a new form of social inequality that is dividing a number of groups in our society-the overworked and the underemployed, men and women, and parents and nonparents, to mention a few. For this reason, it is crucial to move beyond a focus on national averages to look carefully at the way work is increasingly divided into longer and shorter workweeks. We also need to pay attention to the ways that family change has created different time pressures for different types of households. Across occupational contexts and demographic groups there is growing variation in the time demands confronting workers and their families. Once we pay attention to the complexity of our increasingly diverse labor force and family structures, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationFighting for Time
    Subtitle of host publicationShifting Boundaries of Work and Social Life
    PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
    Number of pages21
    ISBN (Print)0871542862, 9780871542878
    StatePublished - 2006

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Social Sciences


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