The Structural Problem with Family and the 40 Hour Work Week

Posted on July 21, 2015

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0690e0eEric Ameigh (LinkedIn) is the Projects Coordinator for the City of Boulder‘s Department of Public Works. Ameigh ‘s background in planning has provided him with experience working with cities and counties, leading neighborhood initiatives in New York and managing key City projects in Colorado.  If you’ve ever talked with Eric Ameigh you know he embodies that out-of-the-box, creative ELGL mindset.

The Structural Problem with Family and the 40

This week I am vacationing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with my family. It’s an incredible summer destination for recalibrating the work life balance, what with the infinite blue ocean, the wide and inviting beaches and, you know, also apparently the sharks.
giphyYes, somewhere between the day I booked my fully non-refundable summer vacation and the time I set foot in the Tarheel State, the apex predators of the western mid-Atlantic collectively decided that humans should be given something to think about before moving from sand to surf. So I’ll spend the week constantly debating about whether to personally set foot in the water while simultaneously frustrating the best laid plans of a three year old kid who is attracted to water like Richard Dreyfuss is attracted to Devil’s Tower.
The week will be dominated by questions like: If I enter the water, will I exit with all of my limbs? If my kids put their toes in the surf, will they look like tater tots to some soulless killer fish? My wife is hyperventilating under that beach umbrella. Should I check that out? If I don’t enjoy the ocean, am I personally giving up too much? With the constant fear of a horrible death-by-shark all around us, how do I help everyone have a good time? I’m supposed to be giving my kids cherished childhood memories of a beach vacation. How can I do that if we’re just playing mini-golf all week instead of swimming and looking for seashells?
And then it hits me. I’m balancing. These are the same questions I ask myself when I’m not on vacation! Well, it’s a little different – Colorado hasn’t had sharks in a few million years – but the constant agonizing over priorities and opportunity costs, the need to consider everybody’s happiness, the questions about how to spend scarce and therefore valuable time; it’s what the struggle for balance looks like. It’s just that in normal life, the struggle is not about balancing shark danger and vacation fun. It’s about balancing work and the rest of life.
Like nearly everybody reading this, I have what I hope is a meaningful and successful career in public service. I work hard at what I do. It’s important to me and I want to be good at it. But I also have a whole other part of my life that is even more important – my family.
I’m married and I want to be a good spouse. To me, that means splittingFunny-Kid-Bedtime-Meme kid and household duties as close to 50/50 as possible. It means supporting my wife’s career aspirations and helping her find time to relax alone or work out. And it means spending time together both with the kids and without them. And I want to be a good father. To me, that means being around at wake up time, dinner time, and bedtime. It means being available for and capable of taking care of a sick kid on a weekday. And it means my kids will never complain about a drop-off in the quality of the parenting when I’m flying solo. (No legitimate complaints anyway.)
What anybody in my situation knows – and I don’t think I’m atypical – is that being good at all of this stuff at the same time is really hard. Who amongst us can claim to be absolutely crushing it on all fronts at all times? I know that when I feel like I’m doing a good job – a really good, indisputably good, objectively good job – at anything in this mix, it always comes at the expense of something else in the mix. And the reason why is simple: time.
Each part of life requires a minimum amount of time in order to be done well. That’s just the truth. This article is running long already so just take my word for it that my family, and probably yours (or whoever or whatever else in your life is putting important demands on your time), has some unwritten expectation about how much of your time they’re supposed to get. And in most cases, that quantity of time – not quality – correlates with a job well done.
giphyBut what I actually want to focus on here is the very well documented expectation about the quantity of your time that your employer is supposed to get. I’m not even talking about those of us in local government who might be working 50 or 60 hours per week. Nope. I’m talking about the lowly, humble, largely unquestioned 40 hour week. That’s it. Just full time: 40 hours per week work. The very thing everyone says they want. Or do they?
(Before getting into it, here’s my disclaimer. I like working, and I’m deeply appreciative of the professional opportunities I have had. The organizations for which I have worked have been extremely good to me. This is not a criticism of any one job or employer, but rather of a system that gets in the way and continuously gives a lot of people fits when it comes to balance. This is also very much my personal experience as an educated, married, mid-30s, white collar worker with kids, and it won’t ring true for everyone. But I know there are many others out there who will agree. This is real talk people – the unglamorous stuff that every couple with kids and jobs has to work through.)

The Tyranny of Full Time Work

In 2015, everything is about full time work for at least two reasons (beyond simply paying the bills): career advancement and employer benefits. And that’s not necessarily great for families, especially if they have kids.
Let’s be honest. To make a family work over the long term, at least one person in that family needs to have a good career. It provides income and long-term security and benefits, etc. In order to build that, you really need to be all in. Full time, often more. 40, 50, 60 hours per week. That’s how you pile up successes and develop relationships. If you fail to do that, your career will advance more slowly or not at all. If you don’t do it, someone else will.
Families also need healthcare and a retirement package, and employers reward full time workers with the best benefits on those fronts. It’s a struggle to find good affordable employer sponsored healthcare as a part time worker. Retirement packages will always be in proportion to salary, so part time workers suffer on that count too.
Unfortunately, from an employer’s standpoint, this makes complete sense. For example, an insurance policy is a fixed cost. Whether you work 8 hours or 80 hours, the policy costs the same amount. A manager would be foolish to allow that cost to be spread across so little productivity for part timers when it’s spread across much more productivity in the case of full time workers. Likewise, assuming two employees have the same hourly wage, an employer isn’t going to make the same retirement contribution for both if one works half time and one works full time. This is our system, take it or leave it.
So the world of work says the best material rewards, the rewards that support stable family life, accrue in both the short and long terms to those who work at least 40 hours each week. And this is where a 25 year old recent MPA grad on his fourth internship and $50,000 in student loans starts yelling at his screen:
“Yes! That sounds awesome! Give me one of those full time jobs! Why would anyone ever complain about this?!”
I know, I know. I’m just saying it’s a thing we have to contend with when we balance. And it matters because the amount of time you work is pretty much non-negotiable. But the amount of time you spend with your family is negotiable, which is sad. (1)So we’re locking at least one earner per family into full time work for totally logical reasons, given our system. But of course 40 hours is not 40 hours. Figuring the time needed to get ready in the morning, plus a 30 minute commute on either end, plus the lunch hour which is outside the 40, and then the reentry time at the end of the day, there are 55-60 hours per week that a 40 hour worker is unavailable for anything else. And that’s before evening or weekend obligations, which are common in local government. Oh, and sleep.
It’s no surprise then that a 40 hour/week person who also has a family struggles to be an equal parent, a good spouse/partner, a good teammate for household chores. It leads to a necessary division of labor that causes a lot of stress. Given this system, it seems we have three unappealing options as families.

Three Options

1. We can have one career person who provides financial stability and one stay giphy (3)at home person who manages the vast majority of kid and household duties. The ultimate division of labor and one that plays havoc with the attempts of many households to break out of or make progress on traditional gender roles.
2. We can have two careers and pay a fortune for childcare when they’re young and then pray they survive the non-school hours of adolescence. (And pay someone to do household chores or else just watch the dishes pile up.) It’s financially sustainable but leaves many participants feeling sort of guilty.
3. Or, we can try to find some place in the middle of those two and feel like we’re failing much of the time. How many of you choose this option? I know many families who do.
A lot has been written and spoken on this topic. I would encourage you to go learn more. Ever heard of the default parent? You’ll recognize the phenomenon immediately. In most cases, it’s a bad side effect of somebody working 40. Maybe read this article from the Atlantic with zingers like this: “The central conflict of domestic life right now isn’t men versus women or mothers versus fathers; it’s the family against money.” Or check out this fascinating piece from Harvard Business Review about how careers and parenting turned out for a sample of 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates. What I learned from that one was that many of the HBS grads had unrealistic expectations, and that’s something we need to keep our eye on.

Changing the System

Change the System? Or Suck it up? Part of our work life balance issue,giphy if we claim to have one, is that expectations game. What is realistic? Maybe we need to spend more time forgiving ourselves and the world for all the times when we have to make necessary compromises to make it all work not just in that moment, but over the long term.
But, man, that sounds defeatist. So what could we do to change the system? Well, I think there are some things happening right now that might be changing it as we speak.
Generational Differences. Millennials, despite their student loans and desire to become and stay employed, are not necessarily tied to the established way of doing things. This balance thing is a big deal for them. Their ideas about gender roles at home and work are very egalitarian. As they become the majority of workers in the coming years, they may very well just change it through their cultural domination of the workforce. Will they throw out the old menu of sub-optimal choices?
The Sharing Economy. Change may come slowly for governmentgiphy (1) work, but work is changing nonetheless. What does it mean to have a job? What is an employee? Last month, Uber thought it had its situation nailed. Then all of a sudden it didn’t. Our 20th century idea of what work is supposed to be, and thus what our relationship to our employer is supposed to be, might be up for revision sooner and in a bigger way than we thought. Will there still be such a thing as the 40 hour work week?
Progressive government personnel policies? Ok, this one isn’t necessarily already happening, but it’s a huge opportunity. Government work tends to be a one size fits all solution. Fill out application here. Start work this day. Work these hours. Vest in pension system that day. But it needn’t be that way. My City of Boulder has a good track record of interesting arrangements like fixed-term assignments, part-time hours, flexible scheduling, or combinations thereof over the course of a career. What can the rest of the local government profession do to provide new options for its changing workforce?
giphy (2)I honestly don’t know if reforming the 40 hour work week will really help with work life balance. Maybe it would cause as many problems as it would solve. I’m just spitballing here. (Which is why I love ELGL. Where else can you do this?) There’s no clear path to getting to where we want to be. Sometimes, we don’t even know where we want to be. And once we figure out where that place is, there will likely be thousands of versions of it. And that’s why ELGL should be applauded for providing a forum for airing out these issues. Telling these personal stories is an important part of figuring out the universe of obstacles to work life balance – whatever it means to us – and hopefully using the wisdom of our ELGL crowd to start finding creative possibilities for improvement.

 Your Help

Let’s continue to lend support to each other in finding the right work/life balance! You can continue the conversation by leaving comments, or discussing on Twitter using #ELGLWorkLife. If you’re interested in joining the conversation as a guest writer please contact Benjamin McCready at [email protected] or Freida Edgette.

Supplemental Reading

Future of the Local Government Workforce
Introducing the 2015 “Company Man”


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