Work and Family: Is Peaceful Co-existence Possible?

Working too much, worrying about work too much, neglecting family, neglecting self, experiencing conflict, dissatisfaction, depression: These problems are all-too familiar in today’s overbooked, overworked world. Indeed, they seem practically inevitable in a culture that defines success as "having it all."

Everyone struggles to balance work and family; everyone has some firsthand knowledge of the stress, frustration and fatigue that arise when personal and professional priorities conflict. We are all familiar, too, with the massive commercial response to this pattern. Seminars, self-help books, software, support groups, periodicals, electronic planners, executive briefcases, and even executive pens have been developed to help people negotiate the competing, increasingly complex demands of modern life.

This flood of knowledge, advice, and specialized equipment speaks both to an acute need for help, and to the skillful exploitation of that need by a business sector whose pressurized atmosphere produced that need in the first place. The demand for practical tips on living is so great that people are willing to pay top dollar for organizational and psychological assistance. (This reviewer happens to be devoted to her Seven Habits Organizer, which sits open before her as she writes. Item number one on the Prioritized Daily Task List: Finish writing book review.)

As inspirational and even consoling as much of this material is (my planner is bound in soft green soothing suede; it contains an uplifting quote for every day of the year), it tends to be a bit light on actual information. We are rich in theories and opinions about what is at stake for people working in today’s fast-paced and impersonal corporate environment, but we are comparatively poor in hard data about what choices professionals as a population actually make and how they experience the results of those choices.

Stewart D. Friedman and Jeffrey H. Greenhaus address this problem in their new book, Work and Family – Allies or Enemies? What Happens When Business Professionals Confront Life Choices. Forthcoming from Oxford University Press this summer, Work and Family sets out to study the lived experience of 860 business professionals, as recorded in an extensive questionnaire designed to elicit both the facts of their life situations (how many hours a week they work, how many hours they devote to childcare each week, what sort of work they do, and so on) and their feelings about those situations (how satisfied they are with their careers, their families, their personal growth, and so on).

The group surveyed consists of business graduates from Wharton and Drexel, and the substance of the book centers on an elaborate interpretation of their responses. The authors report their data in a logical way, their explanations are clear, and they supplement the whole with various charts and graphs for easy statistical reference. The book is a solid account of the difficult culture of modern professionals, an account whose dual emphasis on quantitative and qualitative factors allows it both to confirm conventional wisdom and to uncover surprising new information.

One confirmation: Motherhood remains a career liability for women, while fatherhood is actually a career asset. Women are still doing most of the child care, while men with stable family lives advance faster than single men. Some new information: Families seem to be more stable when mothers work long hours than when fathers do. Conventional wisdom says that kids are healthier and better adjusted if their parents are involved in their lives. Friedman and Greenhaus expose a far more complicated reality. On the one hand, their numbers show, the truism holds for fathers: When dad isn’t home much, and when he is distracted by work while at home, kids act out more. On the other hand, the truism does not hold true for mothers: When mom is working overtime, it turns out, kids actually do better. Their explanation: A professionally happy mom has more to give her family than moms who are ambivalent about their decision to slow or even sacrifice their careers after having children.

Another intriguing finding: Contrary to popular belief, time is not the most important issue when it comes to balancing work and family. Friedman and Greenhaus show convincingly that the number of hours worked has very little to do with whether professionals are happy with their home lives. Rather, what seems to determine satisfaction is the degree to which people can focus. Being able to switch gears effectively, so that work stays at work and home life doesn’t intrude at the office, is far more important to a sense of overall well-being than having more total free time.

Findings such as these prove the value of the authors’ detailed, scientific approach. Amassing data allows statistically significant patterns to emerge, some of which confirm our intuitions and some of which press us to rethink our assumptions about what work and family are, and about what it takes to "have it all." The authors suggest, for example, that rather than seeing work and family as competing for time and attention, we might begin to see them as mutually constitutive and beneficial; in other words, we might be more effective at home and at work if we could allow positive energy to flow from one domain to the other. If we could do that, the authors suggest, we could begin to build a better future, one where corporations would be more family-centered, where working mothers would no longer be at a structural disadvantage, and where everyone – parents, children, and businesses – would come out ahead.

Moving from statistical analysis to social manifesto, Work and Family aims to be an inspiring blend of data and dream work, an uplifting account of how we might re-imagine our lives that gets its power from a solid grounding in fact. The irony is that this goal might have been better realized if the authors had borrowed some of the catchy strategies found in the softer work they aim to displace.

Simply put, as good as Work and Family is, it is also awfully dry. It reports findings with care, but not with particular flair. And it makes its recommendations for the future in such bland and abstract terms that they are hard to grasp. The authors write in their preface that they hope the book will appeal to a general audience as well as to specialists, and they are right to want to make their findings available to the lay reader. After all, that is who stands to benefit most from the information and vision Friedman and Greenhaus have to impart. But the straightforward reporting of numbers and the restrained interpretation of those numbers is not likely to be enough to attract or keep the sort of broad attention this work deserves.

Work and Family avoids the sort of chatty, prescriptive anecdotes that characterize best-selling work such as Stephen R. Covey’s First Things First and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and it does so for good reason, because it is committed to building a case of another kind. And yet, the sad reality is that it is just this sort of personalized approach that would have made the book thoroughly engaging and accessible. In its desire to supply data where others have supplied anecdotes, Work and Family avoids exemplary anecdotes almost entirely. And in so doing, it misses its chance to convert a dry sociological study into a readable and therefore usable piece of social criticism.

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