Money-Rich and Time-Poor: Life in Two-Income Households

For families without a stay-at-home parent, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Everyone just wants to be home already. (David McNew / Reuters)

The first thing to note about families with two parents working full-time is that having two incomes is pretty sweet, financially speaking.

These families take in an average of $102,400 annually, according to a Pew survey of two-parent households released today. Families in which dad works and mom stays home make about half that—$55,000.

But of course that extra 50 grand doesn’t come free. These women are selling their time, and they don’t have much of it left. According to Pew, both moms and dads in two-earner households report feeling pressed for time. Forty percent of moms working full-time “say they always feel rushed.” Half of dads who work full-time say they don’t get enough time with their kids. (The Pew study included same-sex couples, but there weren’t enough to break out separate data for.)

This is a group of people who have been working longer and longer hours over the last few decades. According to Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times, today workers in the 6oth to 95th percentiles of earners work the most hours of any group—2,015 hours in 2013, up 5 percent since 1979.

According to Pew, the burden is falling heavily on moms, who continue to do more than half of a household’s housework and parenting (though two-earner families do share duties more evenly than those where only one member works, understandably).

The statistics on this are a bit of a mess, as moms and dads report different household divisions of labor, both when it comes to chores and parenting. Dads are more likely to see the division as equal, and it can be tricky business to sort out who’s right. (My husband likes to say that the work is probably evenly split if both partners feel like they are doing upward of 60 percent of the work, since a lot of what one partner does is necessarily invisible to the other partner. If you feel like you are doing half, you’re not.)

Josh Levs, the author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together, additionally told me that although the survey compared moms and dads who work full-time, that doesn’t mean that they are working the same number of hours. Men are more likely to be putting in extra hours at the office, a fact that has the additional consequence of inhibiting women's career achievements. So an uneven divide of labor at home may be a reflection of sexism in the workplace, not laziness on the parts of dads.

Whatever the exact breakdown (and in my experience squabbling over that breakdown is never worth it), these parents are stressed and harried, struggling to bring their family lives into alignment with their work lives.

But this feeling—this feeling not of not having it all but of simply having way too much—doesn’t stem from a simple insufficiency of hours. As Jerry A. Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson wrote in their book The Time Divide, “The sense of overload that many workers feel is a response not just to long weeks but also to increased expectations on the job as well as at home.” Work is often grueling and home isn’t easy either—kids, especially the kids of highly educated high earners, are heavily scheduled themselves. There’s a lot of pressure, not just a lot of tasks to get through.

Many of these high-earning stress cases could, at least in theory, opt to give up some of their earnings and have more “balance.” But they wouldn’t only be losing income: Work—especially the sort these high-earners are doing—can provide a sense of purpose, not to mention a change of pace from being home day in and day out. Stay-at-home moms in the postwar period resorted to tranquilizers to deal with their loneliness, boredom, and isolation.

Another alternative, if egalitarianism is a priority, is for both parents to scale back their careers and manage with less, but that too may mean less fulfilling work and providing children with fewer opportunities than is “possible”—and for many that’s a nonstarter.

The shame is that even for the parents who are prosperous, those are the choices available.

It wasn’t that long ago that people expected it would soon be otherwise. In the early 20th century, the annual number of hours spent working was on the decline, even as prosperity was rising. And many expected that trend to continue, leading to concerns about too much leisure. As Juliet Schor wrote in her 1992 book The Overworked American:

By the late 1950s, the problem of excessive working hours had been solved—at least in the minds of the experts. The four-day week was thought to “loom on the immediate horizon.” It was projected that economic progress would yield steady reductions in working time. By today, it was estimated that we could have either a twenty-two-hour week, a six-month workyear, or a standard retirement age of thirty-eight.

These prospects worried the experts. In 1959 the Harvard Business Review announced that “boredom, which used to bother only aristocrats, had become a common curse.” What would ordinary Americans do with all that extra time? How would housewives cope with having their husbands around the house for three- or four-day weekends? The pending crisis of leisure came in for intensive scrutiny. Foundations funded research projects on it. The American Council of Churches met on the issue of spare time. Institutes and Departments of Leisure Studies cropped up as academia prepared for the onslaught of free time. There were many like Harvard sociologist David Riesman who wrote about “play” in the lonely crowd and the “abyss” and “stultification” of mass leisure.

But, as Schor continues, “The leisure scare died out as the abyss of free time failed to appear.” These dual-earner couples know that all too well.