[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
June Carbone, Host:
As the economy fails to improve, as we chart the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican Party’s ability to express disdain for unemployment benefits without significant political cost, Americans lack a roadmap for the role of class and gender in the new American landscape. Joan Williams’ book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter (Harvard 2010), supplies that roadmap. The book creates an innovative framework for examining the relationship between law, work and family in the post-industrial economy.
The book builds on Williams’ earlier research exploring the maleness of the workplace and expands it dramatically. Williams starts with the caustic observation that “we still have a workplace perfectly designed for the workforce of the 1960’s.” That workplace depended on the availability of “ideal workers,” who could meet employer expectations premised on the availability of someone else to tend to the children, run the necessary household errands, and make the work-family relationship work. While today’s workplaces successfully assimilate women who participate on the same terms as men, they remain remarkably resistant to creating more supportive environments that would assist parents – male or female – in balancing the competing demands between work and family. The curious question is why. Williams makes the case that more flexible workplaces would benefit employers and that the U.S. is so far from the norm that it can boast “the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world.”
Where the book moves most significantly beyond Williams’ earlier work is placing the debate over the workplace at the intersection of class and gender. The first part of the book thus retells the story of work-family conflict. The initial chapter takes on the story that while well-educated women are not more likely to drop out of the work place, they may face the most intense choices between the remade ideal of super- mothering (the new helicopter parents) and workplace norms that prize total dedication. The second chapter then tells the often heartbreaking stories of the dilemmas working class parents face; these dilemmas are often not so much about time as flexibility – the inability to make a personal phone call can affect children’s lives.
The middle part of the book links these developments to the remaking of workplace norms of masculinity. In 1965, class had little to do with leisure; executives and union members worked about the same hours. Today, the American elite works longer hours than most of the rest of the world while working class men put in fewer hours than they did in 1965. The new “macho” norm for law firm associates or Silicon Valley engineers is total dedication; for the working class men on an oil rig, it continues to be physical bluster. Williams argues, however, that both competitive norms not only drive women away, they are also bad for business. Industry productivity goes up when the company takes into account the costs of attrition and the lack of cooperation. Workplaces with mixed rather than macho gender norms outproduce the competition.
Williams’ most innovative research addresses class. In the post-industrial world, the poor, racial minorities and recent immigrants who have not yet made their first million may still be Democrats, but the white working class has moved decisively into the conservative camp. She traces liberal politicians’ change in emphasis from economic concerns to cultural issues as a critical source of the alienation that many members of the working class feel: the title of one chapter is “Culture Wars as Class Conflict.”
Indeed, Williams’ brilliant contributions to the emerging literature on class stems from her recognition that the new class antagonisms are less about income – the working class is the middle of the American income distribution – than they are about family and culture, and that a class analysis must focus not just on the haves and the have-nots, but on those in between these two groups. While working class income has held steady, working class families are in crisis. Over the last two decades, the divorce rates for the white working class have continued to rise even as they have fallen substantially for the college educated, and the non-marital birth rate is moving steadily upward even as rates have stabilized for the urban poor. The underlying cause is a growing mismatch between men, women and family expectations. The working class holds more traditional family values than the college educated; yet, working class families need two incomes and the job prospects for working class women now exceed those of the men. Family unfriendly workplaces and a lack of support for childrearing exacerbate the tensions. Yet, the toxic politics of cultural division direct this anger at the prospering creative elite of the information economy, blocking the type of policies that might provide greater assistance to men and women at all income levels.
Joan, you starting working on these issues before the Great Recession. How do you see hard times affecting the relationship between work and family?