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To Achieve Work-Family Balance, Americans Have to Work Less | The Nation

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Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

To Achieve Work-Family Balance, Americans Have to Work Less

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. 

As Mother Jones editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery explained recently, this is the “Great Speedup”: employees are being asked to work longer and longer hours without extra compensation. In fact, as Baker pointed out, Americans put in some of the longest hours among developed countries. According to OECD data, out of thirty-three countries, the United States is in the top fourteen for the number of hours worked. The biggest slackers are the Netherlands, Norway and Germany. Yes, Germany, which has been so critical of laziness. Workers put in about 20 percent fewer hours than Americans in those three countries. That means that "if the US adopted Germany’s work patterns tomorrow, it would immediately eliminate unemployment,” Baker says. 

But it goes further than just the sheer number of hours put in at the office. We also work harder in each hour than our global counterparts. According to a 2009 ILO report, the United States "leads the world in labor productivity." That means American workers produce more wealth per year than any other workers around the world. And that output has only sped up since the report was released: as Bauerlein and Jeffery wrote, our productivity doubled in 2010 compared with the year before, after having also doubled in 2009.

While we’re working these longer, harder hours, we’re also guaranteed less time off. Mitt Romney may want every American to take vacations like his family does, but we’re the only advanced country with no national policy guaranteeing paid vacation time. Even more troubling for working parents is that we have no mandated paid sick leave, which means that workers’ jobs can be at risk if a child gets sick. We’re the only country of the top fifteen most competitive ones that doesn’t have such a policy. Countries that do? You guessed it: among that list are Germany, the Netherlands and Norway. Not to mention that we’re one of three countries of 178 that don’t offer paid maternity leave. 

It may be little wonder that a country like the Netherlands—where employees work fewer and less intense hours and have mandated access to paid time off for sickness, caring duties and leisure—scores in the top five for work-life balance. Dutch men spend 163 minutes per day cooking, cleaning or caring, higher than the OECD average of 131 and 154 in the United States. More impressive, women’s employment is more than 70 percent, compared with an average of about 60 percent for OECD countries, and mothers’ employment rate is also higher. The United States, meanwhile, scores eighth-to-last for work-life balance.

Women may have rushed into the workforce, but that doesn’t mean their domestic burden has eased up. On an average day, almost half of all women do some housework, but less than 20 percent of men do. And when they actually do some housework, men spend a half-hour less on it than women. That’s why work-family balance is typically seen as a “woman’s issue.” But calling for all workers to put in fewer hours and have more access to time off will affect men and women alike. Unlike some policies that reinforce the assumption that women do the domestic duties, reducing our workloads gives men just as much time to care for children, cook meals and sweep floors.  

When we wonder why the Dutch seem to have better work-family balance, the answer isn’t just in their better supports for working parents, although those are an important factor. It also has to do with the fact that they’re simply working less. That frees up more time for both parents to care for children, clean house and (gasp!) relax a bit too. Anyone concerned with how to balance careers and kids should be advocating for less work.

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