The Morality of Time

The Morality of Time

Women and the Expanding Workweek

Time-and especially how to allocate it between work and family life-has become an increasingly contentious topic in American politics. The common wisdom, presented in both the popular press and among highly respected social analysts, argues that a growing taste for overwork has led Americans to neglect their families and communities in favor of long days at the office. What’s more, common wisdom holds that this cultural shift signals a moral decline that is harming our children and weakening civil society. It is no surprise to hear social conservatives point to the erosion of “family values” among ordinary workers, women especially. The critiques of contemporary parenting offered by well-known commentators such as David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America, or David Popenoe, who heads The Marriage Project, echo the longstanding conservative lament that the rise of employment among mothers, like the rise in divorce, is part of a larger process of cultural decline that is leaving our families undervalued and unattended.

The current debate, however, is complicated by the emergence of highly respected progressive voices that also stress the deleterious consequences of a culture of overwork. These voices, most visibly and compellingly represented in works such as Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American and Arlie Hochschild’s The Time Bind, rightly point to the intensifying time pressures facing American workers and their families. Yet, by suggesting that the roots of these pressures lie in workers’ taste for overwork, this argument can also become, even if unwittingly, an occasion for moralizing about people’s most private choices-women’s in particular. After all, we didn’t worry about overwork in the decades before the rise of committed women workers, when most of the people engaging in it were men.

There is little doubt that a growing number of Americans face time dilemmas that warrant serious concern. The world of work seems to be on a collision course with the needs of families, leaving too many households facing wrenching choices between time together and economic survival. What’s more, these conflicts between time and money have fallen most heavily on women, most of whom want and need to integrate parenting with the economic, social, and emotional rewards of paid work.

It is, nevertheless, misleading and counterproductive to attribute these new time dilemmas to the values and aspirations of ordinary Americans. Yes, Americans appreciate the honor and dignity of hard work. Women and men both view paid employment as a means to care for others, a way to meet important personal goals, and as a value in itself. But that does not mean they wish to work fifty-plus hours a week or to starve their families of time and attention. As Jerry A. Jacobs and I show in our book The Time Divide, the evidence simply doesn’t support the assertion...