But careers are still based on the conventional (male) breadwinner template: a lock-step, full-time march to a one-way, one-time retirement. This template represents a “structural lag.” Employment policies and practices are changing more slowly than the work force, out of step with the growing numbers of older workers, as well as with workers with family responsibilities. Moreover, moving to a global, highly competitive, information economy has meant that career ladders and prospects are now less predictable, secure, or stable, even for educated white men. The old “contract” between employers and employees (the often informal trade-off awarding security to workers with seniority in return for their commitment) is quickly disappearing. And, even though the American work force is aging, growing numbers of older workers are retiring from their primary career jobs in their 50s and early 60s, frequently to pursue another career.

The escalating strains on working families, as well as the realities of an aging work force and the persistent shortage of workers, make it urgent that employers and governments come to terms with an anachronistic career template. The quandary that confronts employees, corporations, governments, and communities is the mismatch between career norms, expectations, policies, and practices on the one hand, and the realities of a changing work force and changing economy on the other. This career quandary calls for the development of a new employment policy agenda. Three outcomes of inaction are clear:

  • Doing nothing to create a variety of sustainable career paths makes workers with family responsibilities vulnerable to overload and burnout, and places workers’ productivity, family life, and the next generation increasingly at risk.
  • Doing nothing to address the changing nature and timing of retirement places growing numbers of Americans out of the mainstream and deprives them of flexible work opportunities, along with depriving corporations and communities of the time and talents of those in later adulthood.
  • Doing nothing to reshape government and corporate policies and practices related to work hours and career paths exacerbates the continuing labor shortage, with a large segment of the younger work force feeling squeezed for time and burned out, and a large segment of midlife workers planning to exit their career jobs as early as possible, and actually doing so when financially feasible.

What is required are structural “leads”: innovative and flexible work-hour and career path policies — in the public sector, in the private sector, and in the two in partnership — that recognize and respond to the new quandary of old rules but new work force realities.

Work/Life in Historical Perspective

Then… In the middle of the 20th century most middle-class Americans experienced a lock-step life course. This was by and large the pattern of those who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II, many of whom became the parents of the baby-boom generation. For many men this meant completing their schooling; obtaining a job; getting married; starting a family while launching a career; raising two or three children while establishing their career; watching the children grow up and leave home; and retiring at age 65. Serving in the military was a common experience for these cohorts of men, with this too becoming part of the structure of men’s lives.

By contrast, most women’s lives were both more family-focused and more complicated. Middle-class families who could afford to do so divided up responsibilities — with husbands typically the family providers and wives the family caretakers. This became the ideal lifestyle in the 1950s, even for those who could not attain it. Wives who were full-time homemakers freed husbands to focus full time on their careers, unburdened by day-to-day concerns about children, household chores, and ailing or infirm relatives. Even disadvantaged minority and poor workers could rely on a web of social relations — parents, aunts, sisters, neighbors, friends — to help out on the domestic front. Disadvantaged women often pieced together a career of unskilled jobs with low wages and uncertain futures. Middle-class wives typically found their lives shaped by their husbands’ careers. Most women left their jobs following marriage or the birth of a child if they could afford it, often returning to the work force part year or part time once their children were older. Many made geographical moves tied to their husbands’ job transfers and promotions. But wage, benefit, and pension policies built around full-time (or more) work and lock-step career paths offered little job security and advancement to those not able or willing to follow the conventional template.

Now… Today a majority of American workers — men and women alike — are married to other workers. Two-earner couples confront the demands and timetables of three careers — two at work and one at home — and single parents must manage as both breadwinners and caregivers. Workers are retiring from their primary career jobs early, frequently in their 50s and even more frequently by 62, and growing numbers prefer a more gradual retirement, want post-retirement work, or both. But jobs — and career paths — remain geared to the traditional lock-step template, requiring long hours on the job, as if workers didn’t have domestic responsibilities or other interests. Part-time and part-year work remains on the fringes of the economy, limiting the options of workers approaching retirement, retirees seeking post-retirement jobs, working parents raising children, and workers of all ages confronting care responsibilities for relatives, as well as those simply wanting to pursue other interests (such as creative writing or community service).

The most striking change in the latter half of the 20th century and the onset of the 21st has been in women’s life paths, as mothers and wives continue to enter, reenter, and remain in the labor force in unprecedented numbers. A hundred years ago only one in five American women was in the paid work force. By 1950, more than one in three women were employed or looking for work. Now fully three out of five women are working for pay (see Figure 1). Married women’s lives have changed the most. Only 6 percent of wives were employed in 1900, growing to nearly 24 percent by 1950. Now more than 60 percent of wives are working for pay. Marriage no longer predicts whether women are in or out of the work force.

Figure 1
Unprecedented proportions of American women, married and unmarried, are in the work force.

Percent in the work force
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1999; 1999 data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1999 annual averages.

Not only has the number of women in the labor force tripled over the last 40 years, the proportion of working mothers of young children has more than quadrupled. While American women were entering the labor force well before the turn of the last century, it is only during the last 30 years that the employment of mothers of preschoolers — including infants — has become common. Today, almost two-thirds of mothers of preschoolers and, even more strikingly, married mothers of children under age 1, are in the work force.

Men’s lives have been affected as well. Progressively fewer have the benefits of a homemaking wife. Since the majority of all married-couple families have both spouses employed (see Figure 2), unprecedented numbers of workers have no one at home to manage the household or to care for dependent children. Moreover, few workers have neighbors, friends, or relatives who are available to help out, and even fewer can afford to hire a “wife,” that is, pay for full-time care of their children, their homes, and the myriad details of their daily lives. Thus, employees, both men and women, married and single, have to deal with the domestic aspects of living in addition to their job demands.

Figure 2

Most married couples now have two earners.

Percent of married-couple families.
Source: Adults 25 to 55 years old. Linda Waite and Mark Neiben, The Rise of the Dual-Career Family 1963–1997. University of Chicago Working Paper Series, February 1999.

Growing numbers of workers also have caregiving responsibilities at the other end of the life cycle. Increases in life expectancy have meant that large proportions of workers have at least one living parent. As these parents and other relatives age, they are likely to require assistance from their working children-assistance with activities of daily living, with financial and health care arrangements, and with residential moves. An estimated 7 percent to 12 percent of all workers currently report such elder care, and many more will undertake this care work at some point in their lives. The decline in the number of homemakers means that few workers have spouses who are able to take on the full-time care of infirm relatives that has typically been the lot of adult daughters, daughters-in-law, wives, and sisters.

The 20th century witnessed, as we have seen, the feminization of the work force. This has produced the quandary of workers with family responsibilities in jobs structured as if they could give exclusive commitment to their work.

The most striking change in the 21st century will be the aging of the work force and the concomitant growth in the proportion of Americans retired from their primary career jobs (see Figure 3). This is producing the quandary of many midlife workers wanting to shift gears, to move to more flexible, less demanding work, which is simply unavailable in most “good” jobs. Many have but two options: continue in their long-hour career jobs or else retire completely from these career jobs. Retirees face a quandary as well: Many want (less than full-time) productive engagement but find few options to do so.

Figure 3
Until recently, late-midlife men are working less, while late-midlife women are working more.

Percent working
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, annual averages.

Four trends — longer life spans, earlier retirement, the aging of the large baby-boom generation, and fertility decline — account for this remarkable work force change. Although the downward shift in the retirement age appears to have leveled off, early retirement from one’s primary career job remains a popular strategy. But many early retirees and midlife workers who are prospective retirees want other options — especially jobs with more flexibility and fewer hours. Given the continuing low unemployment rate and pockets of real labor shortage, retirees become a potential pool of untapped resources.

Three Key Challenges

Three challenges confront Americans in the 21st century, producing the contemporary career quandary: a work force in transition, a changing contract between employers and employees, and a structural lag in workplace and community policies and practices that are still fashioned around outdated breadwinner/homemaker/retirement templates.

A Work Force Transition in Progress

We are experiencing a transition — in the work force, in family life, and in contemporary culture — marked by considerable diversity and ambivalence in the ways Americans connect to the world of work. This transition is an example of uneven change: Workers often have conflicting goals and expectations, and experience discrepancies between their actual behavior and their personal preferences. For example, according to research by Clarkberg and Moen, most people would prefer to work fewer hours than they do. This is true for both men and women. Some resolve these discrepancies by adapting to the needs of their jobs (for example, by delaying or having fewer children). Others (typically women) respond to their family needs by dropping out of the work force for a time or by working only part time. Older workers who would like to work less but are unable to do so tend to retire from their primary career jobs if they can afford to. But the majority of workers under 60 are strongly committed to their work roles and continue working more hours than they would prefer.

Several recent studies have sought to describe and explain the number of hours that American men and women spend in the workplace (see “Additional Reading and Sources”). Work hours reflect an amalgam of employee preferences, employer demands, and the institutional environment of contemporary work, with a considerable disparity between workers’ self-reports of preferences and their actual behavior. There is an undersupply of “good” part-time jobs (those with benefits and possibilities for advancement are in short supply). Moreover, working long hours (for example, more than 45 hours a week) generally reflects workplace constraints and demands rather than employee preferences.

Not only do those approaching retirement age and those raising children want to scale back on work hours, so too do most workers at all ages and all stages in their careers.

Demographers use the concept “cohort replacement” to describe transformations such as we are experiencing in the work force, as younger generations (with new notions of work and life patterns and possibilities) replace older generations (with more traditional beliefs and behavior). Consider the panoply of changes in virtually every aspect of life that is disproportionately experienced by young adults today. In contrast to their parents or grandparents, most American workers now in their 20s and 30s are better educated and will have fewer children, frequently postponing parenthood. Many also are postponing marriage or are less likely to marry or stay married. Several scholars point out that marriage decisions are tied to the economic and job prospects of both men and women. And younger cohorts of women are more likely than ever to be employed, regardless of their family responsibilities. But neither men nor women find any viable blueprint for meshing their work careers and family careers.

New cohorts of workers in their 50s and 60s are also reshaping notions of retirement. Many retire from their primary career jobs only to start new businesses, become consultants, take up part-time jobs as clerks or service workers (even working for their former employers), or engage in unpaid community service. Decisions about marriage and divorce, the number and timing of children, personal aspirations, retirement timing, and post-retirement employment — all influence and are influenced by the ongoing shift from lock-step to more customized and contingent life patterns. The 79 million aging baby boomers will no doubt rewrite the scripts of later adulthood.

The Changing Employment Contract

A striking trend confronting the contemporary work force is the new employment relationship between workers and their employers. In the 1950s there was an implicit contract (legal in the case of unions) between those hired and those doing the hiring: Workers traded their work hours, labor, and commitment for what was frequently a lifetime job or at least the steady income and job security geared to seniority. Now this contract is disappearing. Fewer workers can count on guaranteed job security, regardless of their occupational status. Workers increasingly feel like free agents, having to chart their own career paths. Correspondingly, fewer workers now offer total loyalty to their employers.

This change in the employment contract in part came about in response to the increasing incidence of mergers and job restructuring resulting in downsizing that began in earnest for white-collar workers in the 1980s, often resulting from corporate decisions to reduce labor costs. While workers with little seniority or those in low-paying jobs (typically women, immigrants, and minorities) have always been vulnerable to a changing economy, the downsizing trend has meant that midlevel managers and professionals, often with considerable seniority, are no longer immune from layoffs, even in times of economic prosperity.

In many cases downsizing takes the form of incentives offered to encourage early retirement: Many workers in their 50s or even in their late 40s find themselves suddenly faced with the prospect of retiring from their career jobs, when the real alternative is to be laid off. Others not targeted for downsizing but eligible for early retirement understandably elect to take advantage of these incentives as well. In companies undergoing large-scale downsizing, the workers who survive one, two, or three bouts of such restructuring frequently begin planning their second careers or retirement strategies because they no longer feel secure about their own jobs and are having to do the work of their laid-off colleagues, as well as that associated with their own jobs. Since the employment contract has changed, workers see the need to navigate their way through a series of jobs throughout their adulthood. Fewer and fewer workers can count on secure, upwardly mobile lifetime jobs with a single employer.

Workers today (and certainly household units) are putting in more hours on the job than in past years (see Figure 4). Four trends suggest why. First, wages did not keep pace with living costs over the last 30 years. Second, neither job security nor the commitment and loyalty of workers can be taken for granted. Therefore, workers often signal their personal investment in their jobs by working long hours, often including evenings and weekends. Third, the ever-rising demand for consumer goods means that workers work more to earn more to buy more. Fourth, women’s increasing labor force involvement has resulted in corresponding increases in their time spent at work, meaning that families devote more total hours to work now that both spouses have jobs.

Figure 4
More workers have a long work week.

Percent distribution of those who work 41 or more hours per week.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Report on the American Workforce, 1999.

Even as prime-age workers are putting in long hours, many in their late 50s are retiring. Retirement is a relatively recent phenomenon, institutionalized in industrialized societies only in the 20th century. Retirement is typically defined as later-life withdrawal from the work force, often with employer-provided pensions. But growing numbers of workers retire from their primary career jobs and then take on other jobs, either for pay or as unpaid community service. Retirement — in terms of eligibility for Social Security and a pension — can no longer be equated with a one-way, one-time exit from the work force or with the cessation of all productive activity.

Neither is retirement occurring at a fixed age (such as 62 or 65). Rather, older workers in their 50s and 60s are customizing their own retirements or are being encouraged to do so with retirement incentive packages. The proliferation of public and private pensions has fostered a worldwide trend toward early retirement from career jobs, although in the United States early exit patterns (involving total cessation of employment) have reversed, with many retirees going back to work, but in different jobs, and often only part time.

Structural Lag

The career quandary is an example of “structural lag” — a mismatch between prevailing institutional structures and contemporary work force realities. For example, historically we have operated on the premise that wives and mothers should do the domestic labor of society in order to free husbands and fathers to work in the paid economy. The fact that women now constitute almost half the labor force challenges well-entrenched employment policies and practices designed for a predominantly male work force, a work force without child-care or elder-care responsibilities.

Structural lag is evident in both public and private employment policies. For example, although exempting professional occupations from its purview, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the eight-hour work day/40-hour work week as a way of redistributing work during the Great Depression, has remained fundamentally unchanged for over 60 years. It makes flexibility in work hours (such as more hours one week, fewer hours in another week) costly. Similarly, payroll tax policies (Social Security and Medicare) make two part-time jobs more costly for employers than one full-time job. Moreover, growing numbers of workers are now exempt from mandated special overtime compensation provisions provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Professionals in particular are encouraged to work long hours for a fixed salary in order to move ahead or even to keep their jobs.

At the other end of the age spectrum, throughout much of the last half of the 20th century pension policies have encouraged early retirement. In fact, economists suggest that the growth in pension coverage accounts for most of the declining employment of older workers. But many workers report wanting to work less or to have different jobs, not to exit the work force entirely. The structure of jobs and pension benefits suggests that most older workers find themselves in the same circumstances as workers with young families: not working at all or working 40 or more hours a week.

There is a lack of gradual retirement paths and bridge jobs for those approaching retirement. Many older workers would like to remain in their career jobs or to start new careers — but they typically do not want to work full time. More part-time, part-year options are needed, both as part of a gradual retirement process and as new post-retirement opportunities. Part-time, part-year opportunities for community service also need to be available and easily accessible for retirees who wish to continue to be productive, but not necessarily in paid work.

Another example of structural lag is the way schools are organized. Schools operate as if at least one parent were at home, but reality makes before- and after-school care problematic for schools and families alike. School hours and schedules made sense for an agricultural economy, where children were expected to help on the farm. These arrangements also worked when mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and neighbors were available to care for children. Today both mothers and fathers are likely to be employed, as are their neighbors. And grandparents as well as other kin are either themselves in the work force or living elsewhere.

Moreover, while many employers advocate lifelong learning, they fail to provide opportunities for on-the-job training or sabbaticals. Many institutions of higher education hold fast to tradition, offering few part-time, evening, and distance learning options. Most educational institutions are still designed for a “young” clientele without job responsibilities.

The lag associated with the changing employment contract can also be seen in the ways pensions and health insurance regulations presume full-time, steady, continuous employment. The reality is that a growing segment of the work force is made up of temporary workers, diminishing numbers of permanent employees who can count on lifetime employment, and older employees and parents who want to work less.

Policy Considerations

These challenges point to both similarities and differences between the United States and other industrialized societies. European nations are also in transition, experiencing their own shifts in gender roles, family configurations, and early retirement. The United States is by no means unique in facing a changing work force. But this country is unique in its reluctance to forthrightly address the issues raised by work force transformations in the policy arena. Most European countries, unlike the United States, do provide supports to women, parents, and families (in the form of children’s allowances, maternity benefits, and paid parental leaves of absence) in addition to protections against unemployment.

European countries are also experimenting with more flexible work hours (France instituted a 35-hour work week), and most have also devised a variety of exit strategies (such as disability pensions) around the retirement transition. These European policies reflect economic concerns (such as flexibility for employers); ideological convictions about the importance of individual, family, and child welfare; and pragmatic concerns about unemployment and low birth rates. (European countries, in contrast to the United States, have had stricter immigration policies and therefore rely more on their own citizens to meet labor demands. Thus, their adoption of family-friendly policies relates not only to family well-being but also both to labor market demands and periods of high unemployment.)

By contrast, both government and employers in the United States have been notably reluctant to provide more options, benefits, and services for America’s changing work force. We in the United States remain uncertain, if not divided, about what men’s and women’s roles should be, and about the roles of older workers and retirees. Attitudes about gender, age, retirement, maternal employment, children, and families are ambivalent and often conflicting. This absence of clarity and consensus is important in explaining why there is no coherent public-sector or private-sector policy response to the changing work force.

But the escalating strains on working families, as well as the realities of an aging (and retiring) work force, in tandem with a growing shortage of skilled workers, demand that employers and governments develop a new work force policy agenda.

Policy Issues in Life Course Context

In resolving the career quandary (resulting from structural lag in policies and practices, in tandem with a changing economy and a changing work force), governments, businesses, and unions must face three realities.

The first reality is that parents of young children are only a minority of the work force at any given time. This raises a knotty question: Should parents of young children be allotted a disproportionately large share of the benefit pie? One solution to this equity problem is a flexible benefits plan that, within prescribed financial limits, permits workers to select those benefits that best meet their individual and family needs. Some workers may well choose child-care subsidies while others elect more vacation time, enhanced retirement benefits, or extended health coverage. Another solution is to fold child care into the larger domain of dependent care. While not everyone must provide care for children, most workers have or can expect to have aging parents or other relatives or disabled family members who will require their time and attention.

Parents of young children are also vulnerable to job loss. Contract work and temporary jobs are more common among younger workers, creating a less stable economic climate for childbearing and childrearing. A range of flexible career options for all workers, all with opportunities for advancement, security, health insurance, and other benefits, would widen the career horizon for everyone.

The second reality is that job turnover is a problem for employers who often make considerable investments in recruiting and training workers. Taking time out of the labor force or even working a reduced schedule while one’s children are young can wreak havoc on long-term occupational achievement and can jeopardize job security, seniority, pay, and benefits. With the advent of more temporary jobs and the specter of restructuring, many workers are unwilling to cut back on their hours or to ask for special flexibility, fearing that such requests will jeopardize their employment.

Although the wage gap is narrowing, the reality and expectation of women scaling back during the childrearing years creates a cycle of disadvantage that accumulates over a woman’s lifetime.

The third reality is that Americans are living longer but retiring earlier than ever before. This is producing a cadre of educated, skilled, healthy, vigorous, and “young” retirees on the sidelines of American society. Many wish to work for pay, but not in full-year, full-time jobs, and not necessarily in their primary career jobs. How to tap the resources of this growing segment of the population by creating both paid work and community service opportunities is a key challenge for the 21st century.

Possible Solutions

Research is beginning to establish the real costs of the career quandary. The absence of public and private workplace policies fostering sustainable career paths is resulting in worker stress, overload, turnover, strains on working families, women’s limited occupational advancement, and loss of the time and talents of late-midlife workers moving into retirement.

Many working families are experiencing a time squeeze, along with conflicting demands at work and at home. Low-wage workers and those moving from welfare to work frequently confront this time squeeze in the context of job insecurity, no health insurance, long commutes, and few affordable, quality child-care options. The traditional male breadwinner career model and stereotypes about gender, in conjunction with family role demands, mean lower wages for women even when they work full time. While social science cannot offer any pat solutions, it can at least suggest some of the right questions. And research evidence can clarify why some initially promising solutions have not worked, while others might stand a chance of succeeding.

Old Templates

The solution to the influx of veterans into the economy following World War II was the G.I. Bill (enabling countless veterans to go to school) and a fixed retirement age (moving workers out of the labor force at 65). But leaving the labor force at age 65 has been a reality for fewer and fewer workers over the last part of the 20th century, as most retire earlier and growing numbers are seeking post-retirement paid jobs. While this traditional template is obsolete, most policies and practices sti