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ew $3 million institute at Cornell to focus on working families

A new $3 million institute at Cornell University will look at how families are coping with changes in all stages of life and work.

The new Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute, a Sloan Center on Working Families funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, will establish research, education and outreach programs that address the emerging realities of working families that are the result of fundamental changes that have occurred in recent years in the institutions of family and work. Its research will look at working families and issues, such as their decisions, stresses, beliefs and expectations and their coping strategies for options, parenting, childcare and financial decisions.

The institute is the first center on working families supported by Sloan and is a result of growing recognition of revolutionary changes in the interface between families and work.

"We are witnessing today the emergence of new cultural prototypes of family, community, work and career," said Phyllis Moen, director of the new institute. Moen is the Ferris Family Professor in Life Course Studies at Cornell and also the director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center, under which the Cornell Careers Institute will be operating.

"This represents a change in both vision and behavior of individuals, families and employers in how they view both occupational careers and family arrangements. We want to identify the dynamic processes by which families respond successfully to these changing demands and opportunities. By doing so, we hope to form a basis for the design of careers, families and the life course into the next century."

Instead of looking at snapshots of working families at single points in time, the institute will take a life course approach that reflects the interweave of work, family and community roles as these change with age, changing circumstances and options. In other words, the researchers will be seeking to understand the interrelated trajectories of both the occupational and family "careers" and the series of movements that working husbands and wives take in and out of various roles and relationships as their job and family needs shift.

"The life course orientation will enable us to better understand the dynamic processes of adaptation and change over the life span of all the family members and the roles of occupational careers, technology in the home and workplace, and institutionalized structures and practices in families, work places and other institutions in the working families," Moen said.

Faculty from the colleges of Human Ecology, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Arts and Sciences, School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the Johnson Graduate School of Management will collaborate, Moen said, to enlarge our understanding of working families from the vantage point of families. Initially, the researchers will focus on two-parent, middle-class families at four life course stages: the anticipatory (ages 20-30), the launching (ages 25-39), the establishment (ages 35-54) and the shifting gears (ages 50-75) stages.

"Our primary focus will be on mapping the reality of working families in particular contexts and particular life stages," Moen explained.

Specifically, the researchers will focus on research that:

  • Describes the actual experiences, family and career strategies, social networks, cultural models and expectations of working families in different contexts and at different life stages.
  • Identifies similarities and differences among different subgroups, such as between husbands and wives, among couples in different types of jobs (such as corporate vs. non-profit service organizations), and cultural and ethnic groups regarding work-family lifestyles and parenting patterns.
  • Maps out the different kinds of successful strategies working families use.
  • Suggests potential opportunities for change, such as in policies, practices, technologies and strategies in families, communities and work organizations.

To do so, five programs of research will be established. Faculty and researchers will investigate the experiences and expectations of working families -- the nature of the lives, lifestyles, social networks and challenges of contemporary two-career families; the cultural images of working families -- emerging cultural models of family life and organizational careers at different stages of the life course; interlocking careers of husbands and wives -- addressing how couples manage their dual careers and parenting responsibilities, looking at issues such as timing, sequencing, synchrony and turning points; couples' retirement transition -- tracing the careers of husbands and wives and how the couples make decisions as they look toward retirement; and midlife transition and psychological coping -- focusing on how men and women in midlife cope with work stress and work-family conflict.

In addition to collaborative research projects, the institute will develop a multidisciplinary graduate training program on the life course analysis of working families and outreach programs to promote understanding of the changing family/work interface and its implications in academic, corporate and policy communities.