Laura: “Now that I am back to work full time, I get up at 5:00 A.M. to get the kid’s lunches ready. I
often find myself doing laundry at 10:00 P.M. Last week I was picking up groceries at the supermarket at 11:00 P.M., and my stomach is churning while driving to the day care center because I don’t want to be charged the late pick-up fee. I’m so exhausted at night when I got to bed, I can hardly talk to my husband, no less make love with him. I don’t like living this way, but I’m not seeing a way out.”
Jack: “I don’t like it either; but if we want to continue to enjoy our standard of living, we need both incomes. It’s really stressful when one of the kids gets sick and can’t go to day-care. We get into a big argument every time about who will stay home with them, because it may put each of our jobs in jeopardy to not come in. I’m sure we’re working much harder and longer than our parents did, with less to show for it.”
For reasons that are too complex to cite, Jack is correct. The young parents in contemporary America not only work longer hours than their parents did, but they work longer hours than do citizens of any other country in the world. We have even recently surpassed the Japanese who have coined the term “Karoshi syndrome” meaning “death from overwork.”
While it is easy to take the stress produced by excessive overwork personally, in fact symptoms such as irritability, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and exhaustion are less a personal failure than they are expressions of dysfunctional economic and social systems. Those countries with the lowest levels of stress disorders such as the Northern European and Scandinavian nations tend to be those that provide a safety net for families, children, the elderly and those who are most vulnerable. When we traveled to Scandinavia recently, our informal survey of citizens in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark revealed that social structures including universal health care free and higher education, and extended paid maternity and paternity leave, and day care greatly diminished the stress-related conditions that plague many contemporary American families.
Our culture’s failure to prioritize the needs of the family over the values of “free enterprise” is a primary factor in the disintegration of the American family. This phenomenon has become known as the “work-family conflict,” and in America, work is clearly winning. Joan Williams of the Center for Worklife Law, at the University of California Hasting College center for American Progress found that the typical American middle class family worked eleven hours a week more in 2006 than in 1979. That’s an average of 572 extra hours worked per year!
On top of the stress of working more hours, American families don’t have the supports that other countries take for granted, such as high quality conveniently located, subsidized child care, paid sick days, limits on mandatory overtime, the right to request work time flexibility without retaliation, and proportional wages for part time work. Of the thirty industrialized democracies, only the United States lacks paid maternity leave laws. In almost all cases where family leave is available, it is unpaid, limited to three months, and covers only half of the labor force. Discrimination against workers with family responsibilities is illegal throughout all of Europe.
The American workplace was designed for the typical family of 1960, a time in which the father was the breadwinner and mom stayed home. The income from one working parent could cover the cost of home, car and other necessities. Those days are over. Now 70% of children live in households where both parents are employed. Today the typical American family struggles to earn a living in a tough economy. Family life is compromised by rising demands in the workplace, where many employers think they have to assign longer hours to employees in order for their businesses to remain competitive.
In the United States, ninety percent of American mothers and ninety-five percent of American fathers report high levels of stress. The United States has the most family-hostile public policies in the developed world. There has been no major legislation designed to enhance family life since 1993.
Some couples attempt to meet the challenge of child-care by working opposite shifts. They call it the “tag team” when one is working a night shift and the other a day shift in order for one parent to always be available for the kids. The kids may be receiving adequate care, but these couples have so little together time that their risk of divorce is six times the national rate.
Jobs in the second decade of the 2000’s are not as readily available today as in years past due to four strong trends, dating back to the 1970’s:
- Increasing use of computers, which have made it possible for employers to reduce their number of workers,
- Outsourcing of workers to other parts of the world where wages are lower,
- Women joining the paid workforce in large numbers, and,
- Latin American immigrants moved here looking for jobs when the number of jobs was already declining.
Since none of these trends is likely to change in the near future, a tight job market is what we have for the time being. A tight job market makes people hold on to the job that they have, do what is required of them, and work harder than they really want to out of the fear that there are a lot of people lined up eagerly waiting to take their job. People who were not predisposed to becoming workaholics become so because of the fear that if they don’t overwork they will loose their job.
In the realization that we are a part of a larger issue, we may become able to use the energy that is freed up from worrying about our imagined shortcomings to make the very best of an extremely challenging situation. Perhaps we can carve out time to be with our partner to focus more attention on the quality of our relationship. If we set aside time when other distractions cannot take our attention and completely devote ourselves more fully to each other, speak from our heart, have some fun together, and work as a team to solve the numerous problems that occur in every family, we can keep our heads above the water line, even if just barely. By seeing the broader nature of our predicament, we get some relief. Millions of families are suffering with the same challenges. Once we commit ourselves to creating more sane, balanced, and integrated lives, we might even provide a model for other couples that share the same concerns.