The Problem of Work-Life Balance


The Center for American Progress has compiled the most data-driven, comprehensive report on work-family conflict that I have ever seen. The complete report and the executive summary may be downloaded from the following here. Here are some brief excerpts:

Work-family conflict is much higher in the United States than elsewhere in the developed world. One reason is that Americans work longer hours than workers in most other developed countries, including Japan, where there is a word, karoshi, for “death by overwork.” The typical American middle-income family put in an average of 11 more hours a week in 2006 than it did in 1979.

Not only do American families work longer hours; they do so with fewer laws to support working families. Only the United States lacks paid maternity-leave laws among the 30 industrialized democracies in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The only family leave available to Americans is unpaid, limited to three months, and covers only about half the labor force. Discrimination against workers with family responsibilities, illegal throughout Europe, is forbidden only indirectly here. Americans also lack paid sick days, limits on mandatory overtime, the right to request work-time flexibility without retaliation, and proportional wages for part-time work. All exist elsewhere in the developed world.

So it should come as no surprise that Americans report sharply higher levels of work-family conflict than do citizens of other industrialized countries. Fully 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of American fathers report work-family conflict.


“The United States today has the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world…” due to a long-standing political impasse.” (For Americans the same situation applies to America’s inability to deal with climate change, a deteriorating infrastructure, environmental degradation, lack of social safety net, lack of universal health care, etc.) But why is the US so incapable of dealing with an obvious situation when the rest of the developed world has done so? One reason is the policy makers and media think in unrealistic, manufactured images about what the conflict looks like. So for example they might portray this as the admirable choice a high-paying professional woman makes to forgo her career to care for her child. How selfless! The opposite story is told about the welfare to work mother. Here the question is whether the mothers who are not working should be cut off from the few hundred dollars a month they receive from the TANF program. The problem is that these portraits are inadequate to describe typical situations:

Both professional women and welfare mothers are portrayed in these narratives as lacking sufficient personal or financial incentives to work outside the home. Thus, in this frame, the problem is viewed as not the lack of adequate public policies but rather the personal choices of a small set of mothers who are in families that do not look like most U.S. families. Politicians have actively used these narratives to reject moving forward on a work-family agenda.

(The power of framing never seeks to amaze. For example, Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare queen still misinforms policy makers—whether unintentionally or intentionally. As anyone who has ever been to inner city St. Louis or Detroit or Chicago can attest, welfare recipients are not living well on the meager dollars they receive, assuming they receive anything at all. It is well-known that the welfare in our society is almost exclusively for the rich. The money in society is not redistributed from the rich to the poor and middle class but the reverse. Mancur Olson’s monumental work, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities, made this point clearly with numerous historical examples. As Olson demonstrated from a careful look at the history of world economies,  the money in societies generally does not trickle out of the bottom of the economy, it blows out the top. Think savings and loan scandals, raiding of pension funds, and of course the financial crisis of the US in 2008 when Wall Street bankers and financiers stole a good part of America’s wealth. In the US today 40 hedge fund managers make as much as 300,000 school teachers, almost a third of all American teachers. )


But between the wealthy mother praised for selflessly staying at home and the poor mother criticized for doing so are the vast numbers parents in the middle. These parents work very hard for money they need desperately and, at the same time, try to care for their children and sometimes their aged parents in a society without any societal support. While parents of differing economic means experience the problem differently, the conclusion of the report based on massive amounts of data going back to the 1970s is this:

Our analysis shows that while families across the spectrum face work-family conflict … no matter where Americans stand on the income spectrum, they need short-term and extended paid leave and new workplace flexibility rules, as well as high-quality, affordable childcare and freedom from discrimination based on family responsibilities.

To understand the disconnect between most family’s experience of work-family conflict and political impotence to take steps to alleviate the situation, the report details the changing social conditions of the past 60 years which have led to the situation becoming so acute in America. What we have today is a workplace designed for the workforce of 1960 which was almost exclusively male. The major changes in the workforce today are drastic changes in: a)working hours; b)income gaps between various workers and; c) patterns of family care. In great detail the report shows both the social and economic costs of our policies. It also shows how changes in public policy would positively effect the lives of families across the income spectrum while at the same time making America more competitive economically. Thus, as with universal health care, there is both an economic and moral argument for making the changes to bring America more in line with other more Enlightened developed countries. As the report says:

For this to happen, though, progressives need to build a strong coalition that can appeal to the poor, the professionals, and the missing middle with their different work-life conflicts. Above all, progressives need to explain how the family-friendly policies Americans need to enable them both to care for and support their families are needed by American families at all income levels—even if their needs differ.


To me the central message is that we must appeal to people’s self-interest; while at the same time getting them to see that their self-interest and those of others coincides. Otherwise they oppose policies that would help them just because those policies would help others. In short, we must get people to see that we’re all in this together. Of course this is a difficult task when those in power are at the same time selfish and unenlightened. A better understanding of “the prisoner’s dilemma,” would help people realize that by cooperating we can all do better and none of us do worse. (What game theories call the Pareto optimal outcome.) Whether this entails more than changes in public policy but actually changing human nature itself, I’ll leave for the reader to decide. But at a minimum one would have to change a system in which legislators were beholding to the moneyed interests that keep them in power rather than being committed to the common good. This situation exemplifies  dysfunctional government.

But one thing is certain. By adopting the more enlightened policies of the rest of the developed world regarding family-work conflict, America would not become a more sissified nation as the movement conservatives claim. Instead we would become a better and more productive nation, as the evidence overwhelming suggests.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem of Work-Life Balance

  1. “as the evidence overwhelming suggests.”

    The overwhelming data from the Center for American Progress suggests that we should adopt progressive ideas and policies?

    I’m shocked.

  2. Some random nobody on the internet makes a sarcastic comment that’s barely superficial to dodge the actual points? I’m not shocked.

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