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The Time Bind: A Book Review

This week, I’d like to take a break from my typical analysis-and-sharing-of-life-experiences format by providing a brief review of a great book called “The Time Bind” by Arlie Hochschild.

In the book, the author visits a town called Spotted Deer to observe the lives of several employees in a wide variety of positions within a large corporation, Amerco. The employees profiled in her analysis of various issues concerning work and life balance range from upper management to minimum wage, hourly employees, but the underlying common factor regardless of the employee’s position or pay grade is that hard work and long hours are at the foundation of Amerco. From Bill Denton and Vicky King, two employees in upper management to Connie Parker, an outspoken receptionist and Becky Winters, a single mother of two working in the warehouse, the battle between time with family at home and time spent at work is a constant struggle.

From the individual employee’s battle for a balanced life the author shares the companies battle for increased production and profitability. The hypocritical “bottom-line” trickles down through the ranks of the hierarchy, pushing a culture that is profit-driven, valuing longer hours in the office over shorter hours and efficiency. The hypocrisy of this profit driven model and the pressure put on employees to work longer, not necessarily “better” is twofold: As seen in many corporations, the upper level employees are compensated disproportionately, with a CEO making nearly $1.5 million a year and secondly, the literature, programs and even the mission of the organization communicate balance as a high priority. While programs to give flexible hours, provide job shares and encourage part-time workers do exist, the pressure put on employees and lower managers to uphold a facade of superior production and efficiency, paired with employees’ fear of being perceived as lazy or not as hardworking if they take advantage of these programs reduces their effectiveness is creating a “healthy work environment.”

This is illustrated in a description of Bill Denton’s dilemma in his role as the company supervisor of the work-life balance campaign. Hoschild describes his hesitation to fully embrace the program explaining the two key factors that kept him from acting on his understanding of the problem, citing “his sympathy for the family circumstances of Amerco’s wokers had to compete with other urgent company concerns, such as meeting production goals; and he lived in a social bubble among men who also worked very long hours, had wives at home and assumed the normality of this arrangement.”

The concept of “escape” is brought up repeatedly throughout the book and a surprisingly high number of employees were found to use work as more of an escape from home than the other way around. In many cases, the “second-shift” most easily defined as the time between coming home from work and going to bed is shared disproportionatly between mother’s and father’s in two parent homes. In single parent homes, individuals are forced to find family members or hire outside help to take care of the home but in two parent homes, the women observed by the author at Amerco spent a large majority of their time working in the second shift, while their husbands or male partners relaxed. In the words of Linda Avery, a mother and employee at Amerco describing the role of work as an escape from home, “nowadays, men and women both may leave unwashed dishes, unresolved quarrels, crying tots, testy teenagers and unresponsive mates behind to arrive at work early and call out, ‘hi fellas, I’m here!”

In her analysis of the second-shift and how different employees looked after their families while maintaining long hours at work, Hochschild presents an interested comparison between how employees at Americo (who represent typical American workers) compare to international employees with similar problems. She illustrates this comparison of strategies to overcome time scarcity saying “Had they lived in China, grandparents might be raising their children while [they] did ‘productive labor.’ Had they lived in a Ghanaian village, a sister might have pitched in while they sold goods at the market. In the New England of the 1800s, a son might have been placed as a millwright’s apprentice in a neighboring family short of boys,” going on to say that “in this town in the middle of America in the 1990s, no such options were available.

Hochschild goes on to further break down the “feminization” of Amerco and the role of women throughout the hierarchy, having to work harder to gain the respect of their male counterparts. She explains the strategies that parents use to take care of their kids without having to be there and the disconnect between management goals and employee needs. The role of family takes on many connotations, from managers that play the role of a “work mother” or “work father” to extended family that takes care of children while parents work inconsistent schedules. The reader comes to realize how connected to family and the work are; how long hours at work mean fewer stories that are read by a parent to a young child. How work can be used as an escape from problems at home and how work can cause divides between spouses that eventually lead to divorce. Regardless of the problem or the issue that is raised by work in the home, Hochschild identifies work as a dominating, difficult to manage obligation, but a necessary obligation in order to survive.

She ends her evaluation of the time bind by offering up a few strategies to limit the “pull of work.” These solutions include organizing, or unionizing to demand more flexible work conditions. More radical strategies include backtracking or plateauing to avoid taking on more work, or even taking part in a “back to the land” movement to simplify life by throwing out time wasting agents like television and the computer. Regardless of what strategy employees use to create balance, or at least the illusion of balance, it is clear that something needs to change for many employees and corporations, in order to aide the process of regaining productive lives at work and home.

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