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The rise in family work hours leads many Americans to struggle to balance work and family

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This Snapshot is a sneak preview of information compiled in the forthcoming EPI book The State of Working America 2004/2005.

Snapshot for July 7, 2004

The rise in family work hours leads many Americans to struggle to balance work and family

Surveys and media accounts suggest that many Americans are experiencing significant stress in trying to balance the often countervailing demands of work and family.   Many of these families report feeling like they are working more hours than their parents did. The data on family work hours show that American families are in fact working more hours than in recent decades, with the average number of hours worked by all family members up since the 1970s.

Nonetheless, those looking to disprove the contention that many Americans are working longer commonly cite the lack of a significant increase in average hours per week, shown as the relatively flat line in the figure.   Over the full period from 1975 to 2002, the average weekly hours show little upward movement; at their peak in 2000, average weekly hours were 3.1% above their 1975 level.   Some argue that an increase of such a small magnitude is not grounds for the controversy around balancing work and family.

The growth of family work hours compared to average weekly hours, 1975-2002

In fact, the trend in average weekly hours explains little about how much families are working, and is even misleading in regard to the extent of hours families devote to work.   For example, the primary factor driving the flat trend in average hours is the entry of more women into the labor force over this period.   Since women are more likely to work part time, their hours worked per week will lower the average of weekly hours, despite the fact that family members are clearly spending more time in the paid labor market.

A more complete measure of how much families are working requires taking account of the fact that more family members are now in the job market. The upward sloping line in the figure provides just such a measure: the average hours worked by all family members, summed across the family.   This index, up 11% since 1975, is a more relevant depiction of the time spent in the paid labor market by working families as more family members participate in the job market.   Such an increase in family work hours can erode the quality of family life, even as incomes rise.  

This Snapshot was written by EPI senior economist Jared Bernstein.

This analysis will also be featured in a forthcoming joint publication by the Economic Policy Institute and The New America Foundation titled Running Faster To Stay In Place: The Growth of Family Work Hours and Incomes, by Jared Bernstein and Karen Kornbluh.


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