Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Time Bind

Maybe it’s because I’m entering the workforce next year. Maybe it’s because I’m a sociologist at heart. Maybe it’s because my life is so leisurely now. Or because I’m in a serious relationship and have visions in my head of a collective future. I don’t know which of these factors is the culprit, but Arlie Hochschild’s work captivates me more than anything I’ve read in years. In all honesty, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so enthralled by a book. Or an author. I couldn’t tell you the last thing I’ve read that truly inspired me, started the wheels spinning in my brain at overdrive. Granted, all this may only reveal a poor memory. But to me, it represents the discovery of an intellectual gold-mine.

Hochschild’s work focuses on families, and my current obsession-du-choix is Time Bind. It’s basically a detailed study of fictitiously-named Amerco, a large American company with plants across the nation and world. My inkling is that Amerco is Ford, but the company’s true identity is immaterial. It’s the families Hochschild follows that peak my curiosity. Her present inquiries deal with why parents are working so many hours. She examines the usual arguments: fear of being fired, lack of knowledge of company’s family policies, obstructive management, fear of “backlash” (in terms of women preserving their image/place in male dominated departments). Yet the evidence from her research finds that none of these theories holds under scrutiny, and there are two more pernicious forces at work: materialism (my idea) and change in how Americans view work (her idea). I think materialism and the famed “Spirit of Capitalism” are to blame, in part, because of our insatiable lust for more stuff. (Trust me, I’m an expert on the never ending lust for clothing) But I think this drive is different than always wanting to buy new shirts, it’s being further reified in a general sense of constant saving. We’re saving for X vacation, for X car, gadget, for college, for retirement – there’s an endless well to put money in, and that pressure is causing families to feel that they can’t work less, because how will they afford these things?

Hochschild’s argument is, of course, much more sophisticated than mine, and centers on the notion that the equation home = haven no longer exists for many families. Now bear in mind I’ve only read 40 pages, so my conclusions thus far can hold only partially true. Through extensive observation and interview, Hochschild finds that many workers, particularly women (I’ll get to this observation in a minute) feel the most stable at work, not home. They enjoy work, not the overwhelming responsibilities of home. I can only describe my first reaction to these findings as shock. Why would people enjoy working more than being home?! Yet the more I mull the theory over in my head, and the more of the book I read, the pieces just fall into place. At work there are fixed responsibilities, schedules, expectations. Much of the stressful emotional situations we experience in the home are absent. At work you don’t have whining, tantrum-throwing children, although you might have difficult employees. At work you don’t have a resentful partner or children, you have sympathetic colleagues. Work doesn’t involve a constant list of items to be cleaned. Now, I’m not suggesting work is stressless, but rather attempting to give light to reasons why work might become a haven. It makes sense that women would give into this feeling more, because for many of them (especially those in the work force at the time Hochschild wrote the book, in the mid 1990’s) work is a blessing. These women were able to pursue a career, something that many of their mothers could not do. They might enjoy work more because they feel they’ve earned their position, and we should see this sentiment displayed strongly among women in male-dominated fields. Yet the converse is true at home; many women of this generation still do the majority of the housework (find stat). They come home to a second shift; after working an 8, 9, 10 hour day, they are responsible for most of the housework as well. It’s no wonder that women, in particular, would find work to be that place of sanctuary.

To me, this theory gracefully connects to many other contemporary problems: the number of children we have in day care (and number of hours they are there), divorce rates, the so-called “cultural cooling”. Traditionally women have done the care taking, but if they are preferring to spend most of their time at work, we can only assume the above trends will worsen. I don’t mean to be dour, but these changes are frightening.

The principle reason I’m so intrigued by Hochschild’s theories is because I am so fearful that my future family will become one of those in the book. How can we prevent this? There’s no doubt that raising children can be stressful, what are some ways to lessen that stress? Escaping to work when home gets overwhelming would be quite tempting. How can you avoid that? Verbal contracts? I know that’s such a ridiculous phrase, but would doing something like simply promising to each other to always be open, to always discuss when things are bothering you prevent giving in to temptation?

I guess what this also comes down to is the $64,000 question for young couples: how do you avoid divorce? With the rate at 50% (higher in some regions), it seems almost inevitable. When you read books like Time Bind, seeds of your fears appear to grow into a jungle before your eyes. The pain and guilt associated with being a workaholic family forms a canopy above you, endless expectations like roots on the ground just waiting to trip you. I guess you have to keep open eyes. Read books like Time Bind, Second Shift. Be aware of these contemporary issues facing families, and talk about how you would deal with these things. I guess the bottom line is that you can never be completely sure (how to avoid divorce, that is). And that I’m way too young to be worrying this much now.

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