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Second Shift

Revisiting "The Second Shift" 27 Years Later

The book The Second Shift made waves in 1989, but are its conclusions about working parents still true?

Revisiting "The Second Shift" 27 Years Later
[Photo: Michal Kowalski via Shutterstock]

About three decades ago, sociologist Arlie Hochschild surveyed the landscape of two-income families. Since the 1960s, women had marched into the workforce. Yet the structure of the workplace and family life had not changed to accommodate this. "Most women work one shift at the office or factory, and a ‘second shift’ at home," she noted in her landmark 1989 book, The Second Shift. Women still did the bulk of housework and child care. Adding time spent at paid work to this second shift, Hochschild estimated that women worked an extra month of 24-hour days each year compared with their husbands. No wonder, she wrote in her most memorable phrase, that "these women talked about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food."

This section of Fast Company’s website is devoted to how working parents—men and women—juggle their dual roles. Since it takes its name from Hochschild’s book, we wanted to take a look back at the original version of this famous tome (it's been reissued twice since), and whether the issues parents face now are the same or not. The answer is that it depends, though more has changed than headlines about whether it’s possible to "have it all" often convey.

A Diversity Of Dysfunctions

First, what made her book so influential: Skipping the usual dry academic prose, Hochschild devoted the bulk of The Second Shift to deep case studies of a handful of families and their dysfunctions. As the Tolstoy quote goes, happy families are all alike. Unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways.

Hochschild’s subjects managed to fight about work, housework, and child-rearing on a dizzying variety of fronts. Some of the more cringe-inducing examples included a family where the wife attempted to create an alternating day schedule for cooking. The husband simply "forgot" to cook on his day, again and again. Or, my particular favorite was a family where the wife out-earned the husband. The husband managed to convince himself—and her—that "only one in a hundred men could take this." In other words, he was giving so much to the relationship by accepting her assault on his fragile manhood that she needed to do most of the housework and child care to even things up.

Of course, not all families had this dynamic. Hochschild profiled a small number of families where the male partners shared equally in the home duties. In these cases, though, they dialed down their professional ambitions to do so, as many of the mothers did in the other scenarios. No one in the original version of The Second Shift happily built an on-fire career while raising normal children in a happy home. This could be accepted as the way of the world—no one can have it all!—if Hochschild didn’t mention, in the preface, that she and her husband cared for their two boys equally. Indeed, "among our close friends, fathers do the same." Hochschild managed to build a thriving career as a tenured academic and not get stuck with the whole second shift.

Was she just lucky? The truth, then as now, is that families differ. People have impressions of their lives that may be based on feelings, not data. Then, as now, gender roles are still in transition, though much has changed.

How Parents Spend Their Time

First, let’s look at that famous quote about sleep. Every year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) conducts a time diary project called the American Time Use Survey. This survey has people talk through the previous day, hour by hour, rather than simply answer questions about how they think they spend time. Consequently, researchers tend to view its results as more accurate than quick-response telephone surveys. In 2008, the BLS published an analysis of married parents’ time. It turns out that moms in couples where both partners work full time sleep 8.15 hours on an average day. Not only is this not a starvation-level ration, it’s slightly more than their husbands. I tracked down time-diary studies from 1965, 1975, 1985, and 2014, and found that over these decades, employed women have always slept about eight hours per day, and always slightly more than employed men. In life, it’s easy to let a few bad nights form a narrative, but the facts don’t point toward widespread sleep deprivation (now or in the past).

It is true that moms still spend more time on housework and child care than their husbands. The 2008 BLS analysis found a 0.69-hour daily gap on housework, and an 0.41-hour daily gap on child care in families where both parents work full-time. So women work a longer second shift than men, a difference of 1.1 hours daily, though men work longer hours on the first shift. There is an 0.82-hour daily gap between married moms and married dads on paid work. Using Hochschild’s formula of adding paid work and housework, we find that women work about 0.28 hours per day longer than men, which adds up to 102 hours over a year. That’s not a month of extra 24-hour days. That’s four days, which seems like considerable progress.

How Men View The Second Shift

Indeed, while they haven’t caught up with their wives, men have doubled the quantity of time spent on housework, and tripled the amount of interactive time spent with their kids over the past few decades. The gap has narrowed to the point where it raises the question of what is required work and what is preference, at least on the housework front. If Mom spends a half-hour picking up the house after the kids go to bed while Dad watches TV, is that him shirking the second shift, or him feeling that the toys will just come out again the next morning, so what’s the point?

To be sure, there is much to be done, not just at home, but in the workplace, too. Hochschild wrote of the assumptions that a man had "backstage support" for his job; when school is canceled for snow, someone else will deal with coverage. That said, at least one recent survey found that 97% of professionals had some flexibility in their jobs. Men are more likely to work remotely than women.

Whether people choose to use flexibility is a different matter. Many couples are still negotiating roles; perhaps it is still true, in Hochschild’s words, that "patriarchy has not disappeared; it has changed form." But many fathers have figured out, as Hochschild wrote, that rearing children "is probably one of the most humanly rewarding occupations." That may explain why 88% of millennial fathers told BabyCenter it’s at least somewhat important to be the "perfect dad" (whatever that is), which is a higher percentage than millennial moms who feel that way. Even men married to stay-at-home moms spend more time with their kids than in the past. Both genders want to be there, which is why the juggle is now a two-gender phenomenon.

That’s why this section is for men and women. These days, everyone is trying to make the pieces of life fit together: the first shift, the second shift, and yes, sleep, too.

Related: How To Achieve Work-Life Balance In 5 Steps

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