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Confronting the Time Bind

Work, Family, and Capitalism

Peter Meiksins is associate professor of sociology at Cleveland State University. He is co-author of Engineering Labour (Verso, 1996) and co-editor of Rethinking the Labor Process (SUNY Press, 1998), and Rising from the Ashes: Labor in the Age of Global Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 1999)

Socialists have long contended that capitalism produces distinctive and undesirable structures of time. Marx argued that capitalism created an ineluctable downward pressure on wages, forcing workers to work long hours in order to earn enough to sustain themselves. By the same token, lengthening the working day was one of the ways by which employers could increase the production of surplus-value. Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, added that capitalism disciplined workers by creating a kind of ideology of work, a moral compulsion to labor; although, in Lafargue’s view, this was in part responsible for capitalism’s periodic crises of overproduction, it was one of the ways by which employers were able to enforce work discipline. More recently, the great English historian E.P. Thompson documented the ways in which the rise of industrial capitalism was associated with rigid, inflexible structures of time, wherein work effort didn’t vary seasonally or across the working day, as the need to maximize the productive potential of machinery, coordinate complex labor processes and, above all, to maximize the application of human labor-power engendered a kind of obsession with time and hours of work.1

Confronted by the reality that it was in the nature of capitalism to generate long work days and inflexible work schedules, working people made time into a terrain of struggle. Beginning more than a century ago, the labor movement confronted the issue directly by pressing for a reduction of the working day. The result was a prolonged and bitter struggle for the eight-hour day. Employers resisted steadfastly, recognizing that such an arrangement would jeopardize one of their primary ways of generating profit (a long and unregulated working day). It required decades of struggle, and considerable sacrifice, to achieve even this modest reduction in the working day in the United States.

With the advent of the eight-hour day, and with the apparent stabilization of labor-management relations in the post-Second World War era, work time ceased to be a central theme in discussions of the workplace and the U.S. capitalist economy. In the United States at least, the left abandoned its preoccupation with time, believing perhaps that it had gained for workers adequate flexibility and a reasonable amount of time away from work.

Yet, a few decades later, time has again appeared at the center of discussions of the workplace. A variety of trends have combined to make it a major issue once again. For some, the issue has become insufficient work time. The high unemployment of the 1970s and 1980s, and the growing instability of employment caused by corporate reorganization and the spread of temporary employment have eroded confidence in workers’ ability to get eight hours of work if they want it. This has stimulated, in turn, renewed discussion of a more equitable distribution of work time (work sharing, a reduction of the forty-hour week, reduction of overtime, etc.); it has also encouraged speculation about the long-term disappearance of work time altogether (in such recent titles as The Jobless Future or The End of Work).

Others have argued that the real issue is too much work time. Noting that the stagnant personal incomes of the past few decades have forced more and more family members to seek paid employment, critics have argued that this has led to a significant time deficit in many families, as two-earner couples seek to juggle work and family responsibilities and single parents have to find work to supplement inadequate government benefits. Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American documented the reality that many Americans actually work more than a forty-hour week (and do significant amounts of unpaid labor at home as well) in order to make ends meet, hold on to increasingly scarce “secure” jobs, and sustain what has become their customary consumer lifestyle. Discussion in the popular media of “problems” such as latch-key children, inadequate institutional child care, and the parental search for quality time with their kids reflects this expansion of work time. Evidence that a significant number of employees would prefer flexible or reduced hours, and the corporate efforts, often cosmetic, to initiate “family-friendly” policies do so as well.

A new and much-publicized book by Arlie Russell Hochschild adds another dimension to the emerging debate about whether we are working too much or too little. In The Time Bind, Hochschild argues that many Americans are, in fact, spending more time at work and find themselves less and less able to find adequate time for their domestic lives. However, she adds that Americans are doing so, in some sense, voluntarily. As the subtitle of the book indicates (When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work), she believes that some Americans have taken refuge in work. Confronted by increasingly unfulfilling, unmanageable, conflict-ridden domestic lives, they flee into the workplace. Moreover, for some workers, workplaces reshaped by such innovations as Total Quality Management (TQM) have become more “home-like.” In a profound irony, it is at work that such employees find the support, praise, and gratification that they expected to gain at home.

Hochschild’s new book performs a valuable service in documenting the ways in which workers of all kinds (from assembly line workers to managerial workers) spend more time on the job. It raises a wide variety of issues which already have been, and will be debated in the mainstream and academic press. Rather than repeat these discussions here, I would like to raise several questions of particular relevance to the readers of Monthly Review. As I read The Time Bind, I was struck by the way in which Hochschild presented a kind of inversion of a classic argument developed by Marx in his early writings. Consider the following quotations, the first from Hochschild, the second from Marx:

In this new model of family and work life, a tired parent flees a world of unresolved quarrels and unwashed laundry for the reliable orderliness, harmony and managed cheer of work. The emotional magnets beneath home and workplace are in the process of being reversed.2

The worker, therefore feels at ease only outside work, and during work he is outside himself. He is at home when he is not working and when he is working he is not at home…. The result, therefore, is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions—eating, drinking and procreating, or at most in his shelter and finery—while in his human functions he feels only like an animal.3

Is Hochschild right, that what Marxists have traditionally regarded as the realm of alienation, the capitalist workplace, has ironically become a kind of refuge from the realities of contemporary capitalist private life? And, more generally, what should be the relationship between “work” and “private life” or “family”? Let us consider these (and related) questions posed for socialists by Hochschild’s view of “the time bind.”

Fleeing From What To Where?

What exactly is happening to the relationship between work and private life in contemporary capitalism? Hochschild contends that the evolution of capitalism has transformed family life into something desperately unsatisfactory, while at the same time producing workplaces which, in a way at least, offer the kind of gratification people once got at home. The result, she believes, is the flight into work. But is this an accurate view of contemporary society?

We must ask first why the many people who are working more are doing so. While it may be true that some Americans choose to work long hours because they prefer work to home (as satirized recently in the Sally Forth comic strip), it is also true that many, perhaps most Americans work long hours because they feel they must. Many low-income Americans string together a sequence of part-time or temporary jobs, resulting in long working and commuting hours; it is hardly plausible that they do so because they find gratification in the chaotic work schedules, low wages, transitory social relationships, and monotonous tasks they typically encounter. On the contrary, it is obvious that these workers tolerate long hours because of the need to generate income, a necessity that has become more urgent as wages have stagnated and the social wage has been gradually reduced. Similarly, in what sense do workers whose long hours are the result of the imposition of mandatory overtime “choose” to work beyond eight hours a day? True, many of the workers caught in this situation value the overtime, and there is evidence that many workers seek overtime, whether it is mandatory or not. But most of them do so because they value the income they earn in this way. In the 1990s, the principal way in which blue-collar workers are able to achieve a “middle-class” income is through working long hours. Moreover, the reality of plant closings and declining numbers of well-paid blue-collar jobs creates real pressure to seek or accept overtime. After all, it is better to earn the money while you still can, and how many would jeopardize a scarce, well-paid blue collar job by refusing overtime or asking for reduced hours?4

Managerial and professional workers, whose jobs offer more in the way of both financial and intrinsic rewards, might be a different matter. It is at least plausible that such workers would find the workplace attractive enough to draw them away from the home. However, here too it is apparent that a considerable degree of compulsion is responsible for the long hours being worked. Indeed, many of the cases presented in Hochschild’s book (the bulk of which are professional and managerial workers) suggest that the flight into work is coerced at least as much as it is voluntary.

For example, she describes the case of “Eileen,” a female engineer who, in Hochschild’s terms, decided, when her daughter was born, to give up the “exciting” time of work for the “boring” time of home life. Hochschild describes this as a “sacrifice.” And there is a sense in which this is true, since she valued her work time and since her husband could not (given the realities of his workplace) transform his work time into child care time. However, Hochschild’s description of what Eileen really wanted suggests that she doesn’t see work as preferable to domestic work; rather, it suggests that she sees them both as valuable:

Eileen was ambitious. She liked this about herself and so did Jim [her husband]. What she wanted instead of a “mommy track” was an array of possible timetables that allowed women and men alike to combine ambition and family.5

Thus, while Hochschild selects Eileen to illustrate an aspect of the flight into work, her case actually demonstrates a rather different set of priorities. Moreover, her experiences, as documented by Hochschild, show clearly the degree to which long hours of work are compelled, even for high-level employees. After choosing to go part-time, Eileen experienced significant conflicts with her boss, who believed in time as a measure of commitment to work. Eventually she was laid off in a reorganization, in part because her part-time status made her vulnerable. She was able to find another position in the organization somewhat later, but only on a full-time basis. Ironically, from the point of view of Hochschild’s thesis, Eileen’s experiences made her feel “divorced from work,” resulting in her eventual request to return to part-time status (when she had another child).

Hochschild’s male respondents provide insight on a different dimension of the compulsory character of long hours in high-level jobs. While some of them fit her model of the individual attracted more to work than to domestic life, some of them expressed a desire to work less. Whether they did so or not, however, they did not feel free to reduce their work hours and/or tended to reject the idea of “flexibility” or reduced hours in general. The men who wanted to reduce their work commitments indicated that they were not free to do so; their employers wouldn’t accept a male employee who sacrificed work for family. Indeed, Hochschild documents the emergence of a stigma against family men in the corporation she studied; family men were not considered “serious players” and paid a high price for their “lack of commitment.” Male managers tended to reject family-friendly policies which allowed for reduced work, in part because it was perceived as a challenge to male ways of doing things.

As Lotte Bailyn has argued, there exists in most organizations a model which emphasizes the importance of employees’ virtually boundless time commitment to the job.6 It is this model which compels male employees to work very long hours, whether they want to or not. And, as Hochschild makes clear, although she tends to neglect the implications of her own evidence, this compulsion works for women as well. As she puts it:

The news of this book is that growing numbers of working women are leery of spending more time at home, as well. They feel torn, guilty, and stressed out by their long hours at work; but they are ambivalent about cutting back on those hours. Women fear losing their places at work, and having such a place has become a source of security, pride and a powerful sense of being valued.7

In other words, women (like men), whether they want to work long hours or not, must work long hours if they are to retain their jobs and advance their careers in a world dominated by a male model of work commitment.

Of course, it is also true that some (perhaps many) people who work long hours do so both because they have to and because they want to. And Hochschild does present evidence that many people feel their family lives to be less satisfactory than their work lives. But this leads to two other questions. First, what kind of gratification do people get when they commit to the workplace as an alternative to the dissatisfactions of home life? And, why are people dissatisfied at home?

We should not dismiss the real gratification that people get from work, even when the work does not appear to be stimulating or well-paid. Nevertheless, it is also easy to overstate the degree to which the “new” workplace provides a home-like environment outside the home. Hochschild herself documents the degree to which the same corporations that use innovations such as TQM to “enhance” the workplace regularly lay off long-service employees or move people out of their comfortable corporate niche as a result of reorganization (causing some of them to feel “divorced” from work, as we saw). Others have argued that contemporary managerial practices, which emphasize the creation of a cohesive workplace family and a unified corporate culture, oblige employees to create a kind of dual self in which, while at work, they must effectively deny aspects of the identity they maintain outside work (resulting in various kinds of psychic tension).8 In short, while even capitalist workplaces provide employees with various forms of gratification, the view that work has grown “better” as home has grown “worse” does not stand up well to the existing evidence about the realities of the contemporary workplace.

We must ask, as well, why so many workers find their domestic lives to be so unsatisfactory. Contrary to Hochschild’s contention, most American women do not simply “devalue” domestic work, particularly child care. Indeed, Sharon Hays, in a recent, provocative essay on ideologies of motherhood, argues that the majority of the women to whom she spoke embraced, in some way, an ideology of “intensive mothering” in which child care is seen as clearly superior to work.9 Many of Hochschild’s respondents also express a desire, which their work schedules frustrate, to spend more time at home.

But they feel rushed and pressured at home and find that tensions and conflicts, rather than quality time and sociability, are often typical of domestic life. By her own account, much of this is a direct result of long hours of work—people feel unable to devote enough time to their home lives because they feel compelled to work long hours. Moreover, as Hochschild notes, most people find it much easier to control and reorganize their domestic time than their work time (where someone else controls time for them); the result is that they cut corners and create rigid schedules which, in turn, makes their domestic lives less satisfactory than they had hoped. The fact that men remain reluctant (or, in some cases, unable) to perform domestic labor makes it even harder to “manage” at home.10 There is, in fact, little evidence in Hochschild’s book of a new rejection or flight from home life. True, most men do seem to prefer work to home (and enjoy home more because they work there less), but this is hardly new. Women may find home unsatisfactory, and may be working more. But they do so, in part, because they have to work more; and the need to work more plays a major role in making home life less satisfactory.

Should We Work More? Or Less?

The empirical questions raised by The Time Bind lead to a larger, more theoretical question: how much should we work? Implicit in Hochschild’s argument is the view that we work too much. She clearly regards it as a problem that so many workers work long hours and that they do not spend more time at home. She also finds it troubling that we have allowed so many aspects of home life to be commodified (e.g., the transformation of cooking into the purchase of prepared food), that family life has become rigid and “scheduled” due to time pressures, and that some have even begun to deny or downplay the importance of emotional life at home.11

But, we must also ask, “what’s wrong with work?” After all, as Marx and other social theorists have argued, productive activity is a distinctively human process through which human beings express themselves and relate to the material world. Work under capitalism may not be as fulfilling as it could be; work under capitalism may also take on a compulsory character which undermines the possibilities of self-expression inherent in it; and it may be that capitalism compels people to work longer hours than they would choose to if it weren’t for the need to generate income, the insecurity of employment, and the rigid models of appropriate work commitment characteristic of capitalist organizations. Still, we need to guard against the temptation to argue that working long hours per se is bad. It is, rather, the obligatory character of long hours of work and inflexible work schedules that is the problem.

By the same token, it is possible to forget the tyrannical and compulsory character of family life as presently organized. It is commonplace in contemporary scholarship, both conservative and progressive, to portray the family as a “haven” (indeed, Hochschild uses this language extensively in her book). In this view, the close social relations and emotional ties that, in theory at least, characterize family life are preferable to the instrumental, competitive world of the workplace. If the workplace usurps this part of family life, it is a poor substitute for what ought to be taking place at home. But there is a long feminist tradition (which, in some degree, should include Engels) which points out the patriarchal and often violent and exploitative relationships lying beneath the veneer of sociability within the family. Sharon Hays notes that there is nothing natural or inevitable about our contemporary view of how family life ought to be structured; her research shows how the prevailing ideology of intensive mothering and the emphasis on the emotional life of the child have been historically created and reinforced, in part, by “experts.” Alternatives to this model of family life, many of which demanded less time and emotional commitment on the part of parents, have existed throughout history. For example, affluent parents have long assigned much of the work of rearing children to institutions and/or to adults from other social classes; there is also a long history of ordinary people raising children with the help of extended families, neighbors, and community support. And as Hays notes, the belief that children require virtually continuous intensive attention from a single adult is a relatively modern development, which would have seemed strange to parents of all social classes as little as forty years ago. It may be that people would choose to parent intensively if they were left to their own devices, but at present, at least, this is not a choice but a cultural obligation, particularly when it comes to mothers.12

In fairness to Hochschild, it should be pointed out that she doesn’t advocate a simple return to traditional motherhood. Rather, she talks of the need for a fight on both the time and gender fronts to create a society both more equal (i.e., where men’s and women’s lives could be structured similarly) and more accepting of child care by both men and women. She is clearly looking towards a society in which the desire to work doesn’t automatically trump the desire to raise children. We may reject her emphasis on “values” as the cause of the shift away from home, but the goal towards which she is pointing remains worth pursuing.

What would this alternative relationship between work and family look like? Hochschild correctly notes that it is not just a matter of fighting for reduced hours: there is a need to challenge the entire culture of time as a measure of work commitment. There is also a need to allow for a diversity of needs and preferences. In a recent book, Christine Nippert-Eng 13 demonstrates that people vary in the way they wish to manage the relationship between home and work. Some wish work to be dominant, some wish home to be dominant. And whichever dominates, there are great variations in how the relationship between the two is defined. None of this should mean that people can’t spend a lot of time at work; it should mean that they shouldn’t have to if they don’t want to. In other words, there is a need for a more flexible attitude to time, for a society in which work and domestic lives can be balanced in a variety of ways. One-size-fits-all solutions will not work.

Achieving this degree of flexibility will require a fundamental restructuring of society. In considering why, it is useful to recall one of Marx and Engels’ most famous statements about the nature of a postcapitalist order. In The German Ideology, there is a famous passage in which Marx and Engels decry the compulsory character of the capitalist division of labor, which condemns people to a narrow sphere of activity:

… whereas in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.14

It is conventional to dismiss this image as either unrealistic or hopelessly muddled. But, it has the inestimable virtue of reminding us of the degree to which capitalism confines human activity to one sphere and makes it impossible for people to combine the various activities involved in a full human existence. Let us add “parent” to the list of activities mentioned by Marx and Engels: can we combine parenthood with our other diverse activities as long as we live within a social system which, often irrationally, requires long hours of work and a rigid compartmentalization of the various spheres of human activity?

Capitalism may be incompatible with a solution to these problems, but it has created conditions under which Marx and Engels’ formulations begin to seem less utopian. We inhabit a world in which many people work too much, while some cannot find enough work, a world where some would like to work more and some would like to work less, a world where the desire to work may vary over the course of one’s life. If it weren’t mandatory for everyone who works to work endlessly, there would be plenty of work to go around. If the traditional male definition of work as a greedy, all-encompassing commitment were shattered, working long hours would become an option rather than a necessity. The result might be a world in which people chose how much they worked and when. In a postcapitalist world, in which the causes of our present need to work long hours were removed, it might be possible, after all, to make a reality of what appeared to be an impractical, utopian dream of the youthful Marxist imagination.


  1. Marx’s comments on wages, time, and work schedules are scattered throughout his works of political economy, most notably Capital. See also Paul Lafargue, The Right To Be Lazy (Chicago: Charles Kerr, 1883; reprint 1974); E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Customs in Common (New York: The New Press, 1991) pp. 352-403.
  2. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Time Bind (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997) p. 44.
  3. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’, in Allen Wood, ed., Marx: Selections (New York: Macmillan, 1988) p. 46.
  4. Good examples of automobile workers’ attitudes towards overtime can be found in Richard Feldman and Michael Betzold, eds., The End of the Line (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
  5. Hochschild, p. 97.
  6. See Lotte Bailyn, Breaking the Mold (New York: Free Press, 1993).
  7. Hochschild, pp. 246-7.
  8. See Gideon Kunda, Engineering Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).
  9. Sharon Hays, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).
  10. In a revealing example, Hochschild documents the case of Deb and Mario, both of whom work very long hours. She shows that Mario worked long hours, in part, to escape the pressure to help out at home. Deb, by the same token, worked long hours in order to force Mario to do his share. Hochschild, pp. 175-93.
  11. See Hochschild, pp. 219-38.
  12. Hays argues that the ideology of intensive mothering is a challenge to capitalism, a contradiction of its tendency to commodify all social relationships and to value economic activity above all else. However, one might just as easily argue that it perpetuates the artificial division between work and home which has characterized capitalism since its inception; it also is a useful way to justify capitalist society’s failure to provide the socialized child care and other domestic services that are needed to allow parents to work long hours—after all, if it’s crucial that mothers (or at least a parent) care for their kids, providing adequate child care at affordable prices would actually be a bad thing!
  13. Christine Nippert-Eng, Home and Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  14. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The German Ideology,” in Marx: Selections, Allen Wood, ed., (New York: Macmillan, 1988) p. 97.
1998, Volume 49, Issue 09 (February)
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