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iconTwo's company -- Phyllis Moen's Cornell University study found that working couples without children say they have more satisfying family lives than their counterparts with kids.  

Dual earners:
Double trouble

In this story:

Stressed and distressed

Women doing double-duty

Home, hearth -- and who cleans it?

His 'n' her worklife

In sickness and in wealth


(CNN) -- "Two-earner families are trying to do something in a world that's designed for one-earner families."

Phyllis Moen is a professor of sociology and human development at Cornell University. She directs the Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute.

"It's hard to pursue two full-time careers and have a family. It's just about impossible unless you can afford to hire a full-time nanny."
— Phyllis Moen, Cornell University

"Jobs are constructed," she says, "along the breadwinner model: One worker has no family responsibilities."

Moen has co-authored a study of dual-earner households. And what she found is that when both spouses work, it may be the husband who puts in longer hours -- but his wife is likely to be the one who feels more stressed and less in control of her life.

The reason? Moen says women are more likely to defer to a husband's career and shortchange their own so they may take responsibility for household matters.

"That works well when one person is a homemaker," Moen says. "That frees the other person to pursue their career, the prestige, the job security. And that worked for middle-class families in the middle of the 20th century. But today, there are very few families where there's a full-time homemaker."

"We're all doing it. We're all exhausted."
— Phyllis Moen, Cornell University

Marin E. Clarkberg, a sociology department colleague of Moen's at Cornell, has estimated that by 1998 there were more than 30 million dual-earner households in the United States -- nearly triple the number of traditional breadwinner-homemaker households.


Stressed and distressed

Half the men who live and work as members of dual-earner couples work 45 hours or more a week, Moen says. Typically, the husband works 10 to 15 hours more per week than his wife. Yet it's women who say they're more frazzled, the survey indicates.

•   Women from dual-earner couples showed an average stress rating of 2.86 -- as opposed to the men's 2.42 -- on a scale of 1 to 5. A rating of 5 meant most plagued by stress symptoms including headaches, fatigue and insomnia. A rating of 1 was interpreted to suggest the least amount of distress in the previous three months.

Source: Cornell Couples and Careers Study, 1998  

•   When asked how often in the previous three months they felt burned out, emotionally drained and frustrated by their job (with 1 being never and 5 being very often) women scored an average 3.12. Men, 2.88.

•   Asked about their feeling of mastering or coping with personal problems during the last three months on a 1-to-5 scale -- with 5 being most in control and 1 being least able to cope -- men scored higher than women on average, 3.83 to 3.57.

"It doesn't look like much, but it's statistically significant," Moen says.


Women doing double-duty

Moen says she thinks women's greater stress while working fewer hours is created because women are more often the spouses in dual-earner couples called upon to take responsibility for family-related matters.

If one spouse has to leave work for a parent-teacher conference, to help an elderly parent or to let the furnace repairman in the house, it's apt to be the wife who gets up from her desk and takes care of what needs doing, Moen says.

Source: Cornell Couples and Careers Study, 1998  

While 59 percent of men and 52 percent of women said their spouse's job is as important as their own, Moen also found that 39 percent of women but only 12 percent of men rated their partner's job as more important than their own.

This modification of the traditional breadwinner-homemaker arrangement means that some women are jeopardizing their career advancement while trying to balance home and work responsibilities, Moen says.


Home, hearth -- and who cleans it?

Moen analyzed data from a 1992 survey of 1,668 men and women in dual-earner households. She was assisted by Yan Yu, an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

graphic Are you half of a dual-earner couple? Do you know a couple trying to keep all the balls in the air? Talk with us about what you know when it comes to two working adults and running a household.

That data is still valid, Moen says, because more recent surveys have produced similar findings.

A couple often starts out roughly equal in pay and hours worked, "and suddenly, they find themselves in the traditional roles because the world of work hasn't changed," Moen says. "It's hard to pursue two full-time careers and have a family. It's just about impossible unless you can afford to hire a full-time nanny."


His 'n' her worklife

•   In one of four dual-earner couples, one spouse works fewer than 39 hours a week. This is almost always the wife, Moen says. The few exceptions are seen when the husband is a student or is nearing retirement and scaling back his hours.

•   In 8.5 percent of dual-earner couples, both spouses work more than 45 hours per week. When they do, both spouses report equally high levels of conflict and stress.

Source: Cornell Couples and Careers Study, 1998  

•   Couples who work a similar number of hours -- but not an excessive number of hours -- score highest in rating their quality of life. Only about 24 percent of dual-income couples work comparable hours.

•   More men than women said they would like to work fewer hours. The margin was small, however -- 55 percent of men to 50 percent of women.

•   Some 12 percent of women and 13 percent of men said they want to work more hours.

•   Men and women reported almost identical levels of difficulty in balancing the demands of work and life away from the job. People who said they had a demanding job or job insecurity tended to score low in their ability to achieve a balance, while those with a supportive supervisor and job autonomy did better.


In sickness and in wealth

"The only way you show (job) commitment now is through long hours," Moen says. "The fact that seniority no longer means security means somebody has to look committed even if they're not committed."

graphic How successful do you think dual-earner couples can be? Can a wife and her husband hold down full careers?

Yes, the dual-earner format can work -- with commitment and patience from both spouses.
Depends on the couple. Wife and husband need to be tightly focused on the common goal of their work.
It just won't work. It's doable for a time, maybe, but soon either the house goes to pieces or the jobs do.
View Results

What's needed, Moen says, is a new way of doing work that recognizes the realities of today's workforce. One that allows people to work part-time and still make partner or vice president at the firm.

"I think this is going to happen," she says, "because of the sheer number of people in this situation. We're all doing it. We're all exhausted. The other reason I think it will happen is the aging of the workforce. Workers are just going to retire if they can't reduce their work hours."

Moen acknowledges that some companies are beginning to make changes to work schedules that better enable employees to have more of a balance between work and home life. Flex time, telecommuting and other arrangements are part of this widening initiative.

Phyllis Moen  

Significant changes, however, are slow in coming, Moen says. The 40-hour -- and longer -- workweek dates back to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It defined the standard 40-hour workweek and mandated overtime pay while exempting professional occupations from its purview. The act has changed little over the years, Moen says.

"We take this template ... and act as if it's God-given," Moen says. "We don't see that this was a social invention and we can re-invent it. We as a society need to create new templates for work life."



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October 24, 2000

Cornell Careers Institute
Families and Work Institute
Work & Family Connection
United States Department of Labor

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