Families at all levels of income are struggling in our economy simply because it does not allow congenial coexistence of work and family life. Lives have become busier and busier and policies have not changed to reflect that. In her book, Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict (Harvard University Press), Heather Boushey thoughtfully and comprehensively explains the problems with work-life conflict for women. Her book presents a set of solutions, too, that could make work-life conflict a thing of the past. While the story leads with the tale of what happens to women, Boushey takes the very issues that working women with families face and shows how these dilemmas are not about being a woman, they are about economics, and are shackling our entire economy. A valuable contribution is her portrait of contrasting work-life conflicts across income groups and family composition. She uses data as a skilled economist—which is her discipline—yet builds sensitively from history and social theory in a compelling book. Ultimately, her grounded arguments deliver detailed explanations as to why family policy needs to change and change quickly. Boushey, who is Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, has decades of work bringing careful research to bear on key policy issues—and is successful at making the research and policy issues understandable to people who are really affected by the policies.
DUAL EARNING FAMILY DEPENDENCE
Boushey sets the table with locating economics in social context. The deal with capitalism is that by design the economy is ever-changing. Since the 1970s it has become heavily dependent upon women’s earnings. Families can no longer get by on the earnings of just one parent as they could before around 1979. So if our economy is so dependent upon a dual income family, then why aren’t there policies that support families’ need to manage work and family care? In Boushey’s words: “The hodgepodge of work and family policies that has evolved over the years does not address how people can have the time to deal with conflicts between work and home life” (p. 250). Finding Time explains the factors that determine what needs to change and how that change can happen.
COMPOSITION OF THE FAMILY IS CHANGING
The composition of families, Boushey reminds readers, are a lot different now than they used to be. While in the past families typically consisted of a mother, a father, and children, families now are more complex and could be classified in a burgeoning array. Single parent families make up about 27 percent of families today, for example. While in the past families could survive off of one parent being the breadwinner, that is nearly impossible now, especially for single parent families. She explains that single parent families are more likely to be low-income than families that have two (married) parents. Where are U.S. policies that make single-parent families able to thrive? Yes, they are already at a disadvantage with only one income, but policies that work will empower single parents to earn money and do the carework, which are two key things parents need to do.
WHO WILL BE THE “SILENT PARTNER” NOW?
Boushey makes a great point when she explains that women have always been the “silent partner” to businesses. Starting with the 19th century “family wage” and ending somewhere after the 1950s boom, men could go to work and not have to worry about their family because they knew their wives would be taking care of it. Businesses never had to take family into account because men never had to worry about theirs. In Boushey’s phrase, women were the “silent partners” to business. However, now that women’s incomes are key to family survival, the country is still not doing anything to lessen the burden of the work-family conflicts. Meanwhile, businesses reap benefits from having more capable workers in a larger labor pool, for whom wages are stagnant.
HOW CAN WE BE HERE, THERE, PROVIDE CARE, AND MAKE SURE ITS FAIR?
Women do not have a “silent partner.” But Boushey has a recommendation to fix this. She found that there is not one sure-fire way to fix the work-life conflict that families are facing. She argues that we need solutions in four areas that she calls Here, There, Care, and Fair.
Here: Policies for when women need to be Here (in the home). These policies include paid sick leave for medical needs and other time that would need to be spent with children.
There: Policies to make sure that the amount of hours that women are working leaves room for managing their family so that they do not always need to be There (at work).
Care: Policies regarding high-quality Care for children and aging family members.
Fair: Overall, policies need to be fair for everyone. This means that no matter what your income or familial composition is, you are still afforded the same work-family policies and no added responsibilities should hinder that.
Not only would adding this support make it less stressful for families to balance work and life, but such supports decrease costly turnover rates and increase productivity.
Women (and men!) need family policy as our silent partner to help us provide for our families. The “family policy” men had in the past was a housewife—and this policy is out of date. The economy has grown with the growth of women’s participation in the work force. It is time, Boushey demonstrates, that this growth should extend to benefits for women and their familial responsibilities.
This book was a great read. Along with clear explanations of economic concepts, Boushey uses her personal experience growing up in a working-class, union family in Washington State along with her knowledge of economics and history to show that to grow our economy and bring us out of the doldrums, working women need family-friendly policies. As a young woman looking ahead to a life of work-life conflict, I gained clarity and direction for my own work. Work-life conflict is a topic that needs recognition and Boushey is helping to spread knowledge and awareness. Boushey’s book still left me wondering how race may factor into this work-life conflict, maybe in a future addition we will be given some insight!
Originally posted 7/29/2016
Molly McNulty is a former CCF public affairs intern at Framingham State University. She graduated in May, 2017, as a Sociology and Education major.