It seems the summer heat is making us think about how to escape work. Tim Kreider’s New York Times op-ed on our overly busy lives made a huge splash, and even Mitt Romney came out (sort of) for vacations for all. Meanwhile, the controversy continues to swirl over Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article about why women “can’t have it all,” meaning that they still struggle to balance family and career. What do these topics have to do with one another? Everything. If we truly want improved work-family balance for American families—mothers and fathers alike—then we have to address the fact that Americans are overworked. We have to work less. Period.
Kreider thinks many workers are “addicted to busyness.” He calls for more idleness in order to allow us to make “unexpected connections” and find more inspiration. Mitt Romney might agree. When asked if his lavish vacation was hypocritical given the state of the economy and his bashing Obama over the head with it, he replied:
I hope that more Americans are able to take vacations. And if I’m president of the United States, I’m going to work very hard to make sure we have good jobs for all Americans who want good jobs. And part of a good job is the capacity to take a vacation now and then with their loved ones.
His comments came a couple of days after economist Dean Baker explained how having Americans work less could be a good route out of the recession. He writes, we can “employ people by encouraging employers to divide work among more workers,” decreasing the hours all of us have to put in at the office.
All this talk of the need to slow down came against the background of continuing controversy in the aftermath of Slaughter’s cover article for The Atlantic. I’ve already pointed out the structural discrimination that’s a huge barrier to women achieving “it all”— if we understand “it all” to mean a high-powered career and a happy family life—and it has incited an important conversation about the lack of work-family balance in America’s workplace.
If Americans want time for both families and successful careers, we have to demand policies that will allow us to work less. Women have taken the workforce by storm over the past half-century, entering it in droves. That means that many families now have two parents in the workforce, disrupting the Leave It to Beaver family structure in which one parent (i.e., Dad) goes to work to make money and one parent (Mother Dearest) stays home to tend to the house and raise the children. According to the Center for American Progress, today less than a third of all children have a stay-at-home parent, while more than half did less than thirty years ago. In fact, nearly half of all families with children have two working parents.
One might expect that the workplace would have adapted to accommodate these changes. With nearly double the number of available workers, and the fact that all employees now likely need to pitch in to share domestic duties, we might hope that employers would lower workers’ expected output. Yet exactly the opposite has happened.