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The single, the stay-at-home, and the stressed

Jan 15 2013

We are living in a new economy. The core of our economic system has shifted from manufacturing to a focus on service occupations and high-tech, intellectual capital. As part of this shift, more women have moved out of the house and into the workforce.

We all know that work itself is different. But we may be surprised to learn that the effects of this changing economy reach far beyond work and right into our private, personal lives. According to sociologist Kathleen Gerson, the new economy is fundamentally reshaping the structure of our personal lives and families.

To learn about these changes, Gerson interviewed residents of Silicon Valley, a hotbed of high-tech activity that is emblematic of the new economy. Although fundamental change has occurred, Gerson says that it is not as simple as saying that things have, “moved from worse to better.” 

According to Gerson, “there is increasing diversity in people’s patterns, including a blurring of gender lines as well as new ways of thinking about work and family life and how to put it together." However, she says, "everyone is struggling with some basic tensions and dilemmas.”

In research conducted during a fellowship at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Gerson spoke with a random sample of Silicon Valley residents between 30 and 45 years old—the crunch time of family and career building.  The majority of her interviewees were middle or working class, although her respondents came from all classes. Some had full-time careers in high-tech, while others worked in jobs that were produced by the high tech boom, including service and sales workers as well as  legal and other professionals. Despite the diversity of this group, Gerson found that the new economy has created common issues for all workers. As it turns out, this new economy is dramatically affecting family structure.

Long hours, unstable career paths, and shaky personal lives

“[There is an] inexorable march towards more and more time pressures,” explains Gerson. Employer expectations about reasonable work hours have changed because of globalization and the rise of high-tech industry. According to Gerson, it is almost impossible for workers to resist the trend toward longer hours, as they are concerned about their own survival in an increasingly cutthroat economy. 

For instance, Gerson interviewed a worker whose boss told him he could hire, “…three guys in Russia for what you get paid, so you have to do the work of three people.”  Because of these increasing job expectations and demands, says Gerson, our lives are ruled nore and more by our occupations, leaving little time for anything else.

Meanwhile, Gerson explains, stable job and career pathways are declining in the new economy, upending the ways we think about and structure work. In her research, Gerson found that working-class and middle-class people alike have lost the sense that there is a stable work pathway to follow. Instability has even spread to people in high-status, well-paid jobs, as these workers do not feel like they can depend on their jobs existing in the future. This uncertainty creates great anxiety for individuals and families in all classes: even if one has a job today, there is little guarantee that it will be there tomorrow.     

Lastly, says Gerson, our personal lives have become more ambiguous, as relationships have become more voluntary and less clearly defined. “Individuals are not sure whether their relationships will last,” she says. “Whether you’re a man or a woman, there is a concern that you cannot plan your life assuming that you will always be in a relationship.” Furthermore, she adds, the growing time demands of work make it increasingly unclear how to raise children, since work leaves little time to care for others. 

Care famine and singletons

The result? The new economy has dramatically affected the structure of families, says Gerson. The increasing time demands of work have caused couples with challenging jobs to experience what Gerson describes as a ‘care famine,’ in which there is no time or space for family. 

According to Gerson, many dual-employment couples remain childless, having determined that they do not have the time to provide the care that children require. For dual-employment couples who do have children, says Gerson, the time demands of two jobs and children frequently become unbearable.

Gerson found that this stress often causes one spouse (usually the woman) to leave their job to address the ‘care famine.’ But this old-fashioned solution is far from idyllic - generally, the breadwinner does not like having to work all of the time, but fears that working less will result in losing their job. On the other side, the caretaker is often frustrated because she – and sometimes he - feels like a single parent and generally does want to be in the paid economy. The caretaker is simply at home because of the inability to combine a new economy job with care work.     

According to Gerson, many workers actually end up single because of the time demands of work, paired with the instability of jobs, career paths, and relationships. “The work is so demanding, there is little time to cultivate personal relationships,” Gerson explained. “Others have hit so many roadblocks in work that they don’t have the resources to build relationships.” 

Changing course

Although Gerson found that the new economy has caused many new struggles in our battle to juggle work and family, she emphasizes that these trends are not inevitable and that through collective action we can change course. Even if change is difficult, it is urgently necessary for the future of our country.

“We haven’t developed more public and collective ways of caring for children or the elderly or the people in our lives who encounter unexpected needs, and we need to give families room in this insecure and time-greedy world to provide for the people they care about,” she says.

As difficult as it may be to redesign work in order to create change, Gerson points out we have done this before. “We instituted safety standards when industrial jobs were so unsafe that you were lucky to get out alive.” 

“[We must] rethink at a national level what it means to create a society in which jobs are humane, reasonable, accessible, and productive.”  For instance, we could create rules about when it is acceptable to read email at home, institute federally subsidized day care and provide reasonable levels of job security. 

Gerson is optimistic and believes that change is possible. “These are institutional shifts,” she says. “We can also develop institutionalized resolutions to the crunches they have created so that people can achieve their desires to integrate satisfying paid work with a full, enriching personal life.”

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