Changing Families, Changing Workplaces


American families and workplaces have both changed dramatically over the past half-century. Paid work by women has increased sharply, as has family instability. Education-related inequality in work hours and income has grown. These changes, says Suzanne Bianchi, pose differing work-life issues for parents at different points along the income distribution.

Between 1975 and 2009, the labor force rate of mothers with children under age eighteen increased from 47.4 percent to 71.6 percent. Mothers today also return to work much sooner after the birth of a child than did mothers half a century ago. High divorce rates and a sharp rise in the share of births to unmarried mothers mean that more children are being raised by a single parent, usually their mother.

Workplaces too have changed, observes Bianchi. Today’s employees increasingly work nonstandard hours. The well-being of highly skilled workers and less-skilled workers has been diverging. For the former, work hours may be long, but income has soared. For lower-skill workers, the lack of “good jobs” disconnects fathers from family obligations. Men who cannot find work or have low earnings potential are much less likely to marry. For low-income women, many of whom are single parents, the work-family dilemma is how to care adequately for children and work enough hours to support them financially.

Jobs for working-class and lower middle-class workers are relatively stable, except in economic downturns, but pay is low, and both parents must work full time to make ends meet. Family income is too high to qualify for government subsidized child care, but too low to afford high-quality care in the private market. These families struggle to have a reasonable family life and provide for their family’s economic well-being.

Bianchi concludes that the “work and family” problem has no one solution because it is not one problem. Some workers need more work and more money. Some need to take time off around the birth of a child without permanently derailing a fulfilling career. Others need short-term support to attend to a family health crisis. How best to meet this multiplicity of needs is the challenge of the coming decade.