The Time Bind: Work-family balance

This is a review of the 1997 book The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. It was written by professor Arlie Russell Hochschild over the course of seven years, based on her research of a Fortune 500 company in the rural midwest in the early nineties. What I want to do here is link the work-family balance then, to what it has become today in 2023. Moreover, how what was then led to what is now. Specifically, a broken, disintegrated work-family balance that has crippled America.

Hochschild’s research

is what good journalism was. Because it was based on observation, research, and analysis and then, reporting what she had discovered. Notwithstanding any preconceived, or wished for findings. In other words she let the data dictate. In contrast to what is done today – selective reporting seeking to confirm a narrative.

The professor spent three summers watching, interviewing, and living with all members, from the CEO on down, of a transnational corporation. The story she tells in the book is heartbreaking. In a nutshell what she found was that the work-family balance strived for had instead become reversed. Work had become what home once was, and home what work was. The two worlds had been reversed.

This manifested in broken families wherein children and homemaking was devalued. Parents, married or single, much preferred life at work rather than life at home. The corporation had taken over the role of nurturer. “The work of tending to relationships calls for noticing, acknowledging, and empathizing … patching up quarrels and soothing hurt feelings.” (p.210) Adult workers, no matter their position in the company, got these needs met from, and at, work. Home is where they felt the most stress.

Four Models of family/work dynamics.

  1. The Haven: work is a heartless world and home is a respite – a haven.
  2. Traditional: gender specific. The man works and the woman stays home and cares for the home, children, and her husband.
  3. Disintegrated: “no-job and weak family”. “Neither work nor home has any strong attraction for the individual.” (p. 203)
  4. Work-family balance: family-friendly options at work, or “Total Quality” work system.

[One and two were , and are, in decline, four almost non-existent, and three on the increase.]

Four male views of women workers.

  1. Full human beings. [I don’t know what that means?]
  2. Just like men and expected to pull the same load.
  3. Exotic foreigners.
  4. Alien rivals – taking away jobs, money, and fun.

Three types of divorces.

  1. Good ones. Both former partners better off, happier.
  2. All-right ones. Non-hostile.
  3. Bad ones. Still intensely angry at their exes after a decade. [A plurality were in this category.]

In all three instances, however, the children suffer.

What Happened

is this. The Fortune 500 company, under intense global competition, had to increase productivity and work load. The factory, and all product related services became 24/7 operations. In addition, the over-all culture changed from male dominated to gender neutral. Furthermore, consumerism and materialism became dominant trends, or memes. Moreover, alcohol was a popular remedy. [As it has always been.]

The result was families broke apart under the stress. Work became more rewarding and home more costly, especially children. The nineties saw the emergence of the “latchkey” child. (p. 221-28) The emotional and psychological toll of this new arrangement has had devastating effects on both the parents and children. These kids are the Millennial Generation. (b. 1980-2000, age 22-43 now.)

[A needed research study would be a follow-up of these particular children today. How are they doing?]

The Real World

happened, too. Destroying even the security of work. One worker Hochschild interviewed accurately predicted what was coming.

“I don’t know if we’ll get family-friendly policies here in the plant. You always get the sense that you can be replaced. The company doesn’t say that to us. They don’t have to. We hear a lot of rumors that Amerco [fictive name] may take the operation out of the country and pay fifty cents an hour to Mexican workers to do our jobs. That means high-seniority people will bump people like us out of the plant.” (p. 154)

In a cruel slice of irony, those high-seniority, professional managerial people are now on the chopping block. Because of technological progress and artificial intelligence – many of those positions can now be replaced by systems such as ChatGBT. Thinking, design, and decision making can be done better by machines. Without all the costs of human fallibility.

In My Life

I didn’t feel the Time Bind, or role reversal. Nevertheless, my family did break apart because of the cultural changes. I had a great work-family balance. Because I had great separation from work, family, and home.

I tended bar in Denver, working late into the early morning. My commute from my home in the mountains was thirty miles and took an hour. At Windy Point, about the half-way marker, work would fade away. Home and family then became my focus. In addition, I never worked for any corporation, global or otherwise. Also, I have always been an ‘independent contractor’. I have never been dependent on a job, or a slave to consumerism.

Tending bar for a private business allowed perfect work-family balance for me
Work-family balance 1983

That said, I can see how the work-family balance was disrupted in the nineties and has continued right on up through today. Exacerbated by the internet and the information age. Work now extends 24/7 for a lot of people. Family is becoming obsolete. The culture is one of “hustle”. He who never sleeps has a competitive edge. In addition, no family responsibility can also be an advantage.

We are well into the culture of narcissism.

In Conclusion.

Like Alison Jolly in Lucy’s Legacy,¬†Hochschild was hopeful. However, also like Jolly, wrong. So far.

Hochschild seems to think that if light is shown on potential problems – those problems can be avoided or remedied. So far that hasn’t been the case.

The good ideas, what Hochschild called “An angel of an Idea” (p. 25-34) that came from first-wave Feminism have not evolved into a system that works. Instead, we are in dire straights. Individuals, families, communities, and societies all coming apart. Indeed, there appears “no way out.” (p.243)

A five star read.

3 thoughts on “The Time Bind: Work-family balance

  1. A chilling summary of reality in the late 20th century and beyond. I wonder how the “work from home” momentum from the pandemic will affect these findings — certainly, nurturing at work, at least from interpersonal interaction would seem to decline?

  2. Indeed. “nurturing at work, at least from interpersonal interaction would seem to decline?”
    The pandemic killed a lot of that. “Essential work” became the focus and the hypocrisy of the corporation cares about the worker evaporated further.
    The book is a great read. The nineties were a turning point in so many ways. We seemed to be on the verge of creating a better civil society … and then – things went off the rails.

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