Meditations on Exile and Home   /   Fall 2005   /    Book Reviews

Ball and Chain

On Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Time Bind

Edward Song

Punch cards in use by the US Census Bureau (c. 1910). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Few contemporary theorists have done as much to understand the new burdens and challenges created by our increasingly commercialized world as Arlie Hochschild. In a series of provocative books and articles, Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California-Berkeley, has brought her keen insights to some of the most interesting corners of the worlds of work and family. In The Time Bind, Hochschild turns her attention to the growing tensions arising between the demands of work and home. This book is in many ways a sequel to her earlier The Second Shift, which examined the way that dual-income families manage the “second shift” of household work and child-rearing. The Time Bind, however, extends this analysis by examining a growing cultural transformation in our understandings of home and work. As the book’s subtitle suggests, work is increasingly becoming a place where people feel at home, and home is becoming a place that feels more like work.

The subject of Hochschild’s book is “Amerco,” a successful Fortune 500 corporation that had received much attention for its progressive human resource policies. Amerco (later revealed in a Business Week article to be Corning Inc.), responding to frequent complaints on employee surveys about family issues, instituted a series of programs to address work-family balance. These programs were not merely window dressing. For Amerco and other corporations like it, family-friendly policies have become an important way of attracting and retaining the best employees and avoiding the high cost of recruiting and training replacements. Hochschild notes that it costs $40,000 to hire and train an employee for a skilled position, and a new worker takes at least a year to become as competent as the one that she replaced. With real support from upper management, a strong corporate culture, and loyal employees, surely Amerco would be the kind of place where work-family balance could be achieved. 

Of Amerco, Hochschild found three things to be true. First, in survey after survey, employees professed to be stretched to the limit. Second, the company offered them a range of programs that would allow them to cut back on their time. Third, almost no one used them. What explains this paradox? Hochschild argues that the typical explanations simply did not fully explain life at Amerco. Financial pressures might explain why employees did not cut back their hours, but does not explain why many didn’t even use all of their paid vacation days, or why the best paid employees were particularly uninterested in part-time work or job sharing. Fear of downsizing was rejected by employees as a reason for not making use of these programs, and employees in recently down-sized divisions were no less likely to cut back than employees in other divisions. 

Hochschild argues that despite frequent complaints about the demands of work and the strains that it places on the home, American workers are simply choosing to work more. One theme that emerged in many of her interviews with Amerco employees was that home simply wasn’t “the haven in a heartless world” (to use Christopher Lasch’s phrase) that it is often imagined to be. Hochschild found many families to be in a “time bind,” where long hours at work create pressures at home, which in turn makes work more attractive as an escape. For Linda Avery, one of Hochschild’s interviewees, work was a place to escape the demands at home. Linda and her husband, another Amerco employee, worked split shifts so that one of them could always be at home with their two children. When Linda came home from her late shift at 11 p.m., she would typically find a crying infant, a pile of dirty dishes, and a needy husband and daughter. A first shift of work at Amerco gave way to a second shift of domestic chores, and a third shift of “emotional work” with her children, tending to the damage and stress that resulted from their time away from their parents. In contrast, work became a refuge from domestic turmoil. As Linda said, 

I usually come to work early just to get away from the house. I get there at 2:30 pm and people are there waiting. We sit. We talk. We joke. I let them know what’s going on, who has to be where, what changes I’ve made for the shift that day…. There’s laughing, joking, fun. My coworkers aren’t putting me down for any reason. Everything is done with humor and fun from beginning to end…. (37–8)

In short, for Linda and many others like her, home is no longer a shelter and a haven. 

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