The Fundamental Misalignment of Work and Life

School ends at 3 and the workday ends at 6. Discuss.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Please forgive some very rough history: In the middle of the 20th century, men worked and women stayed home (this was more true for white families than for black families, but, again, this is very rough). Many women deplored their lives at home (see: The Feminine Mystique and, also, this article on widespread tranquilizer abuse among housewives) and sought careers for themselves. Today, women make up nearly half the workforce.

In that earlier time, the roles people had—breadwinner, homemaker, student—fit in neatly with the distinct institutions where they did them: work, home, and school. Those roles have changed, but, in significant, fundamental ways, the institutions haven’t. For most people, the workday isn’t any more flexible nor any shorter (to the contrary, if anything it’s longer); home is still some combination of parents and children, while communal, co-operative living situations—which would supply more adults to help with household tasks—remain quite rare; and school continues to be an 8-ish-to-3 gig. Society has the basic design that it had in the 1950s, a world built for men to work and women to stay at home. Women have succeeded—at least to a certain degree—in this world, but, as Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in Unfinished Business, it “is still fundamentally a man’s world.”

Needless to say, this does not work. It’s wonderful that women aren’t stuck at home (goodness knows I myself am a beneficiary of this shift) but it’s crazy that there has been this dramatic reorganization of society with so little actual structural reorganization. There is no better illustration of this than the three hours between when school ends and when the workday ends, to say nothing of the approximately five years of a kid’s life (pre-kindergarten) for which society has failed to offer any public care for children at all.

For many families, the solutions are stop-gap measures—find a free relative for some days, an after-school program on others, maybe work from home for a bit while the kids bounce off the walls, or pay for private care (an option that many cannot afford). It’s no wonder then that, according to a new Pew report, so many parents—39 percent—are reporting that they have a hard time finding satisfactory options for their kids. And the numbers are much worse for black families (56 percent) and poor families (52 percent). And for families with little kids, finding daycare is major problem. According to Pew, 67 percent—two-thirds—of parents in families with two earners say that it’s hard to find quality daycare they can afford.

This situation is at least partly to blame for the decision of many moms (yes, typically it is the moms) to switch to part-time work or drop out of the workforce altogether, if they are able. But many are not able, either because they and their partner rely on having two incomes for their lifestyle or because they are the sole earner in their household. Twenty-six percent of kids are being raised in households with one parent, according to the Pew report, up from just 9 percent in 1950. For these parents, the incongruity between work and school is even harder to manage.

Until these three institutions—work, home, and school or daycare—are brought into alignment, families will continue to feel stretched thin, dads will continue to experience pressure to be workers first and fathers second, and, in all likelihood, women will continue to lag behind men in terms of career achievement and compensation. Equality is not possible under these circumstances.

School could change, extending the school-day until parents can get home. There could be public daycare, something society already managed to pull off during World War II. Families could expand, living together in co-operative communities or by just straight-up sharing a house, so that more adults are on hand to help make life run smoothly.

But these are all options that presume that work cannot change, and that all the rest of life must bow to its unyielding exigencies. This need not be the case: There is no natural law stating that the workday must be eight or more hours long (Sweden—surprise!—is already experimenting with a six-hour workday). Perhaps work, not home or school, should be the one to bend. If it did, it would no longer look like the man’s world that woman sought to inhabit half a century ago, but, instead, one they helped to build themselves.