Couples -- but particularly women -- are scaling back on work to care for families or to have more time for themselves, Cornell Study finds

About three-quarters of middle-income, dual-earner couples in a study in upstate New York -- and almost all of those couples raising children -- "resist the demands of a greedy workplace" by scaling back their work commitments for the sake of their families and to have more discretionary time, according to a new Cornell University study.

But the ways in which husbands and wives mesh work and family differ. The researchers found, for example, that even though most couples consider husbands and wives to be "equal," twice as many women as men report putting limits on their work commitments.

The result: a "neotraditional" arrangement with the husband's career the primary one in the family. This scaling back "works" in terms of making it feasible to manage two paid jobs along with the "job" at home, but can end up damaging a women's long-term career attainment.

The practice of consciously scaling back as a strategy to cope with family and work responsibilities is pervasive, say Cornell sociologists Penny Becker and Phyllis Moen of the Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute, which is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Moen, the Ferris Family Professor of Life Course Studies at Cornell and director of the institute, points out that scaling back "has become institutionalized as a private, family-level response among dual-earner professional and managerial couples. Rather than seeing the time crunch as a public issue and seeking to change the way work and work hours are structured, couples are making their private accommodations."

Says Becker, assistant professor of sociology and women's studies at Cornell, "The fact that this is strictly a family affair suits business interests because it places the costs of adapting to social change on families instead of employers."

Becker and Moen's study, which is published in the November issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family, is based on an analysis of 117 interviews with middle-income, dual-earner couples ranging in age from 21 to 67 years old; two-thirds had children. The findings come from the Cornell Couples and Careers Study, which drew on data from focus groups and in-depth interviews conducted in 1997 and 1998. The respondents are employees from seven upstate New York companies, two universities, three private firms and two health-care organizations. The study was conducted under the auspices of the Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute, which was founded in 1997 to study dual earner couples' experiences and expectations in the context of a changing workforce and changing career paths. The study is part of an ongoing investigation of the way working couples are managing their lives.

About 40 percent of the professional couples studied said they coped with family/work responsibilities by having one spouse in a "job" while the other had a "career," the researchers report. In two-thirds of these families, women held the "job" instead of the "career."

"Younger women would talk about starting out with an egalitarian ideology and major career expectations, but they often found themselves in early-marriage situations that placed them in a job, not a career trajectory, often without any prior planning of this shift in goals," explains Moen, who also is a professor of sociology and human development at Cornell and director of the university's Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center.

The researchers found that while women put the brakes on their careers after their first child is born, regardless of their career status, men tend to scale back only after they have achieved an acceptable level of flexibility and autonomy in their careers. "This is some progress from the 1970s, however, when husbands rarely scaled back to help out with family responsibilities and instead just accrued and retained privileges within marriage as a result of their occupational prestige," says Becker. "This may well be a part of an emerging larger pattern of couples trading off family and work responsibilities over the life course."

And while women scale back consciously to spend more time with the children, men who see themselves as working in a job versus a career do so not because of family responsibilities or a particular life-course stage but because of chance events and turning points in their working lives or in their wives' careers.

These kinds of findings, the Cornell sociologists point out, "underscore the key role that early expectations and chance events -- turning points -- play in how the genders divide in the management of work and family responsibility over the life course."

Among the study's other findings:

  • About one third of the couples in the study scaled back by placing limits on the number of hours they worked.
  • Men who scaled back tended to do so when their children were young; a significant proportion of women, however, put limits on paid employment across all ages and life-course stages, even when there were no children in the home.
  • Unlike other recent studies, Becker and Moen did not find that employees are working at the expense of spending time at home, or that they enjoy working more than being at home. Nor did they find that career-oriented spouses have transferred their emotional commitment from family relationships to work friendships.

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