Expert Commentary

Changes in time allocation among American families

2011 paper in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on the broad changes to work/life balance in the American family.

Over the past 60 years, the pace of American life and the face of the American family have changed dramatically. These shifts in how adults are allocating their time, of course, have implications for the quality of care provided to children and approaches to parenting.

A 2011 study from UCLA published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “Family Change and Time Allocation in American Families,” used survey data and 40 years of diary evidence, along with a literature review of recent scholarship on the issue, to analyze the trends in the American family and the implications this had for the care given to children.

Highlights from the paper include:

  • Currently, 40% of U.S. births are to unmarried women. At the same time, 20% of women aged 40 to 44 have never had a child, twice the percentage 30 years ago.
  • Labor force rates for mothers with children increased from 45% to 78% over the last 50 years.
  • Data from the American Time Use Survey suggest that, as mothers increased paid employment since 1965, they reduced their time on housework but not on direct child care. Between 2003 and 2008, the average mother spent 14 hours a week engaged in child care, the highest such average of any recorded time period. (The author notes that such engagement is defined not merely as spending time with children, but rather as time devoted to “meeting the child’s needs” and directly engaging in “taking care of the child or interacting with the child in activities such as play or reading to/with the child.”)
  • The historical patterns for women are as follows: “As market work increased, mothers’ time in childcare activities declined from 10 to 8.5 hours per week between 1965 and 1975, but then increased. After 1985, primary childcare time of mothers rose to almost 12.6 hours per week by 2000 and has fluctuated around 14 hours per week during the 2003 to 2008 period.”
  • Moreover, “fathers have increased the time they spend on childcare over the past two or three decades. For fathers, more childcare hours were added to long work hours, especially for married fathers who average more than 40 hours of paid work per week (regardless of the age of their children).”
  • Evidence supports the theory that, currently, middle class parents engage in “intensive parenting.” This means that now, more than ever, parents are involved in several extracurricular activities with their children.
  • Despite the higher weekly average of child-care time, parents still report having “too little time with their children.” Even for unemployed mothers, 18% report not having enough time with their children.

“The United States has experienced a postponing of marriage; declines in marriage among some subgroups; increases in divorce, non-marital childbearing, and cohabitation; a decline in fertility; the aging of the population; and increases in women’s labor force participation,” the author writes in the conclusion. “Finding the right mix of policy incentives and private initiatives to support workers … is the challenge we face in the United States if we want productive workers but also strong families to support those workers.”

Keywords: children, parenting, women and work, family live, working moms, early childhood

About The Author