The lives of children in industrialized countries improved significantly in the period immediately following the Second World War. Indeed, the quarter-century between 1950 and 1975 has been called the golden age of social development. During those years, sustained economic growth combined with an expanding welfare state and stable families to dramatically improve the life chances of children. Western Europe achieved the fastest reduction in infant mortality ever recorded, lowering the rate per 1,000 live births from 44 in 1950 to 9 in 1990. At the same time, secondary school enrolment rates increased significantly, rising from 35 to 76 per cent of that age group in Italy and from 39 to 98 per cent in the then Federal Republic of Germany. (10)
In the mid-1970s, structural conditions began to change and governments — particularly in the Anglo-American world — became less attentive to the needs of children. Progress in child welfare slackened and in some key areas trends were dramatically reversed. The old scourge of child poverty re-emerged, and this time material deprivation was compounded by more complicated problems, including underperformance at school, substance abuse, out-of-wedlock births, teenage suicides and severe eating disorders. Now, even privileged youngsters seem increasingly overwhelmed “by drugs, pregnancy, bad grades and bad jobs.” (11)
The factors behind these disturbing developments are complex. Economic growth slowed significantly in the mid-1970s. In market economies, growth in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita fell sharply from an average of 4-5 per cent in the 1950s and 1960s to 1-2 per cent in the 1980s. The slow-down in growth was associated with increases in inflation and unemployment, and with growing inequality and low pay — all of which had a detrimental effect on the circumstances of families with children. Falling wage rates were especially harmful.
The period from 1975 to 1990 saw a startling increase in the number of lowwage jobs, particularly in Anglo-American economies, where poor educational standards and inadequate ‘human capital’ encouraged deindustrialization and the proliferation of low-productivity service-sector jobs. In the United States, for example, the male wage fell 19 per cent between 1973 and 1987. Wives and mothers flooded into the labour market in an attempt to shore up family income, but most American families ultimately found themselves working much harder for approximately the same income. In 1988, average family income was only 6 per cent higher than in 1973, even though a third more married women were now in the labour force. (12) In many households, one well-paid factory job has been replaced by two marginal service-sector jobs. Burger King simply does not pay as well as the Ford Motor Company. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, in describing the need for modern families to work twice as hard to stay even, has noted that “like the hamster in the wheel, they run and run and run, but they’re still at the bottom.” (13)
The wage crisis has not been confined to the United States. In Australia, for example, average real earnings declined by 29 Australian dollars a week between 1984 and 1989 — despite the fact that the Australian gross national product (GNP) grew at a rate of 4.5 per cent a year during that period. As might be expected, declining wages triggered a rapid rise in the number of working wives and mothers. Between 1980 and 1989, the number of married women in the paid labour force grew by 40 per cent in Australia. Among couples with dependent children, the proportion with both partners employed rose from 42 per cent at the beginning of the decade to 57 per cent at the end.
In contrast with the shrinking wage levels typical of the Anglo-American world, many European countries experienced a steady increase in wage rates in the last decade. For instance, in the then Federal Republic of Germany, real hourly earnings in manufacturing increased by 1.3 per cent a year during the 1980s, while in France, wages increased by 0.9 per cent a year. (14)
Time and the two-income family
Largely because of these economic pressures, which have been particularly acute in the Anglo-American world, parents are devoting much more time to earning a living and much less time to their children than they did a generation ago. Victor Fuchs has shown that, in the United States, parental time available to children fell appreciably between 1960 and 1986: “On average, in white households with children, there were 10 hours less per week of potential parental time ... while the decrease for black households with children was even greater, approximately 12 hours per week.” (15) A prime cause of this fall-off in parental time has been the enormous shift of women into the labour force. In 1960, 30 per cent of American women worked; by 1988, 66 per cent were in the paid labour force.
In Europe, trends have been similar. By the late 1980s, 62 per cent of British women, 80 per cent of Swedish women and 59 per cent of French women were in the paid workforce. University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson has shown that the more hours mothers are employed, the fewer hours they can give to ‘primary care activities’ such as playing with and talking to children; dressing, feeding and chauffeuring them; and helping them with homework. According to Robinson, employed mothers spend an average of six hours each week in primary child-care activities —just under half the time logged by non-employed mothers and twice that of fathers (employed or non-employed). Robinson points out that wage labour not only eats into primary care but also influences the total amount of contact parents have with their children. The data show that the amount of ‘total contact time’ (defined as ‘all time parents spend with children, including time spent doing other things’) has dropped 40 per cent during the last quartercentury. (16) The drop is significant because many of the things parents do with children, whether it is visiting grandma or shopping for groceries, play an important role in building strong parent-child relationships and in giving families a shared identity.
It is important to stress that growing economic pressure on families with children, particularly young families and single parents, is at the heart of the parental time shortage. Many families are squeezed on two fronts, dealing with falling wages, while at the same time they are also facing sharply higher living costs. In the United States, mortgage payments now eat up 29 per cent of median family income, up from 17percent in 1970, while college tuition consumes 40 per cent of family income, up from 29 per cent in 1970. (17)
Trends are similar in the United Kingdom. House prices there tripled between 1970 and 1990; indeed, for first-time house buyers, mortgage payments now consume 40 per cent of net household income, up from 18 per cent in 1970. (18) It is no wonder that most British families need both parents in the labour force.
Longer work weeks
If children are affected adversely when both parents work outside the home, their problems are exacerbated by the structural changes that have increased the number of hoars both mothers and fathers spend on the job. Americans are working harder than ever. According to a recent survey, the average work week jumped from 41 hours in 1973 to 47 hours in 1989. (19) In better-paying, more prestigious jobs, time demands have become truly impressive. Entrepreneurs in small businesses are now working 57.3 hours a week; professionals, 52.2 hours a week; and those with incomes over US$50,000 a year, 52.4 hours a week. A1988 survey by The Wall Street Journal found that 88 per cent of senior executives worked 10 or more hours a day, and 18 per cent worked 12 or more hours. On average, these top executives were working three hours a week more than they did 10 years ago and were taking two days less vacation each year. (20)
These long hours are not the result of some collective pathology. Rather, there are new and highly rational reasons why people are working so hard. Harvard University economist Rosabeth Kanter linked the longer work week with the manner in which the workplace changed in the deregulated, newly competitive environment of the 1980s. (21)
The most obvious pressure emanates from a new level of employment insecurity. During much of the 1980s, the United States labour market was in turmoil. In an effort to become more competitive, hundreds of corporations rushed to restructure — merging operations, purging employees, buying this company, selling off that division. In the space of four years, from 1983 to 1987, more than 2 million people saw their jobs disappear or deteriorate as a result of mergers and acquisitions. No industry was immune. The semiconductor industry, for example, a steel performer in the early 1980s, laid off nearly 25,000 employees after losses of US$2 billion in the mid-1980s. Overall, more than 13 million Americans lost their jobs between 1981 and 1990. Two thirds of the people laid off eventually found new jobs, but almost half of the new jobs paid less than the old ones.
Clearly, the threat of unemployment, and the knowledge that any new job is likely to involve a wage cut, has led many employees to work longer hours to show how indispensable they are. In the words of one middle-level manager, “When you see people being laid off all around you you’d have to be irrational not to put your nose to the grindstone.” (22)
The cult of the workaholic has spread to the United Kingdom London’s Low Pay Unit reports that the British male now works five hour more per week than his continental counterpart. A recent survey of 200 British executives found that they worked an average of 55 hours a week Fewer than half took their full holiday entitlement, and 25 per cent worked every weekend. Advertising campaigns for upscale British cars explore the ‘chic’ overtones of working long hours. In the words of one commercial: “It’s tough at the top. When you’re indispensable, working late is tin rule rather than the exception. But look on the bright side, you’ll have the road to yourself on the way home.” (23)
Long hours seem to have little appeal elsewhere in Europe, a fact highlighted in a 1992 study of the formation of British Petroleum multinational office in Brussels. Working hours became a highly controversial issue among the 40 senior staff. American and British managers equated long hours with commitment to the corporation. Scandinavian managers saw long hours as a sign of incompetence, suggesting that employees caught at their desks after 4.30 p.m. needed help or training And German managers insisted that employees be judged by the quality of their output rather than by the simple input of time.
Relaxed European attitudes towards the work week have been greatly facilitated by a powerful trade union movement that has kept the issue of shorter hours at the top of the agenda throughout the postwar period. In bad economic times, unions have resisted the inevitable pressure for longer hours, arguing that a shorter work week actually combat unemployment by spreading the work around. Even during the seven downturn of the early and mid-1980s, weekly hours for most European workers continued to fall. Only recently, the large German union IG Metal won a 35-hour work week for its members, a gain that is expected to spread through the German labour force. And vacation time continues to rise throughout Europe. Recent collective-bargaining agreements have set annual paid leave at five to six weeks in France and six weeks in Germany. Contrast this to the American scene, where in 1989, workers had an average of 16 days off, down from 20 days in 1981.
Moreover, the worlds of work and of the family have become particularly incompatible in the United States, where children spend 2? per cent fewer hours in school than their European counterparts, while at the same time their parents work longer hours and enjoy shorter vacations than European parents. In the United States, the typical school day lasts six hours and the school year 180 days, while in Europe the average school day lasts eight hours and the school year 220 days. The lack of synchronization between school hours and work hours is hard on youngsters. By and large, the vacuum left in children’s lives by the retreat of the traditional home-maker has not been filled with attentive fathers, quality child care, expanded educational programmes or any other worthwhile activity. In large measure, the void has been filled by television. The average American teenager now spends four times as many hours watching television as doing homework.
Stress and strain
So far, the parental time deficit has been discussed as a decline in the amount of time parents spend with their children. But the parent-child relationship depends on qualitative as well as quantitative factors, and in the early 1990s severe time constraints are compounded by mounting jobrelated stress. In contemporary Anglo-American societies, children not only have two parents at work, they also have mothers as well as fathers who routinely work 55-hour weeks and who come home preoccupied and exhausted, unable to give much of anything to their children. If one has been biting the bullet all day at the office — meeting deadlines, rushing orders, humouring the boss—it can be difficult to devote quality time to children in the evening.
Research by Pittman and Brooks has shown that the hard-edged personality traits cultivated by many successful professionals — control, decisiveness, aggressiveness, efficiency — can be directly at odds with the passive, patient, selfless elements in good nurturing. (24) The last thing a 3-year-old or a 13-year-old needs at 8 o’clock in the evening is a mother — or father, for that matter — who marches into the house in his or her power suit, barking orders, and looking and sounding like a drill sergeant.
Compare the ingredients in a recipe for career success with those of a recipe for meeting the needs of a child, beginning with the all-important ingredient of time. To succeed in one’s career may require long hours and consume one’s best energy, leaving little time to spend together as a family and precious little enthusiasm for the hard tasks of parenting. Mobility and a prime commitment to oneself are virtues in the job world; stability, selflessness and a commitment to others are virtues in family life. Qualities needed foi career success also include efficiency, a con trolling attitude, an orientation towards the future and an inclination towards perfection, while their virtual opposites — tolerance for mess and disorder, an ability to let go, an appreciation of the moment, and an accep tance of difference and failure — are what is needed for successful parenting.
Not all high achievers display the goal oriented, time-pressured approach associ ated with career success, and not all good parents are endowed with unlimited stores of patience and humour. But most professionals and most parents will recognize soro of these qualities in themselves. Most are also aware that the aptitudes, skills and talents that people hone to become successful professionals may not stand them in good stead when they assume the role of parent. And the struggle to span the divide between family and work can be painful and fraught with failure for both parent and child. It is one thing to pound along home at seven o’clock in the evening and somehow find the time to help a child with a homework assignment; it is quite something else to summon the energy and the attitudes that enable one to be a constructive presence. Many high-powered parents find it extremely hard to switch gears.
It is a telling comment on the state of affairs that Hallmark, the greeting card company, now markets cards for overcommitted professional parents who find it difficult to actually see their children. “Have a super day at school,” chirps one card meant to be left under the cereal box in the morning. “I wish I were there to tuck you in,” says another, designed to peek out from behind the pillow at night.
Fallout on children
Recent research has uncovered ominous links between absentee parents and a range of behavioural problems in children. A 1989 study that surveyed 5,000 eighth-grade students (14-year-olds) in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas found that the more hours children took care of themselves each week, the greater the risk of substance abuse. (25) In fact, latchkey children as a group were twice as likely to drink alcohol or take drugs as were children under the supervision of an adult after school. The increased risk of substance abuse held true regardless of the child’s sex, race, family income, academic performance or number of resident parents. All that mattered was how many hours the child was left on his or her own.
Another surprising finding of the southern California study is that it was the white children from affluent homes who spent the largest number of hours on their own. Children from upper-income professional families seem more likely to have mothers as well as fathers who invest long hours in their careers and come home at 7 or 8 o’clock, tired and distracted.
While the welfare of children is being compromised by a new and more rigorous set of work pressures, it is also being jeopardized by burgeoning divorce rates, sharp increases in out-of-wedlock births and a striking rise in the number of fatherless households. All of these disturbing trends are most pronounced in the Anglo-American world.
The divorce rate in the United States is by far the highest in the world: In 1990, 5.3 divorces were granted for every 1,000 people. In the United Kingdom, the figure was 3.2; in Canada 2.6; in Sweden 2.4; in France 1.6; and in Italy 0.2. Fifteen million American children, one quarter of all children under 18, are now growing up without fathers — 10 million as a result of marital breakdown and 5 million as a result of out-of-wedlock births. The absence of fathers is twice as common as it was a generation ago, and no relief is on the horizon. In 1960, 11 per cent of American children lived with their mother alone; by 1989, the figure had reached 26 per cent. (26)
In the United Kingdom, the trend developed even more rapidly. During the 1980s, the number of out-of-wedlock births doubled, and by 1990,25 per cent of all babies were born to single mothers. The disintegration of the traditional family has proceeded at a much more rapid pace in the United Kingdom than in the rest of Europe.
Despite our new familiarity with family breakdown, for children, experiencing divorce and single parenthood, as well as the absence of their fathers, remain major traumas. Over the past decade, research by Weitzman, Wallerstein, Duncan, Furstenberg and others has shown the effects of divorce on children to be unexpectedly profound and longlasting.
For one thing, evidence from a number of countries, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, shows the financial repercussions of divorce on children to be extremely serious. The economic harm to children from the divorce of their parents arises from the fact that fathers generally earn a good deal more than mothers, but in approximately 90 per cent of cases, children remain with their mothers after divorce. Noncustodial fathers are, of course, expected to contribute their share to the costs of raising a child by paying child support to the mother, but a substantial number of divorcing men (approximately 40 per cent in the United Kingdom and the United States) walk away from marriage without a child support agreement. Even when an agreement is in place, child support payments tend to be low and unreliable. Despite increasingly tough enforcement laws, a recent American survey found that only 51 per cent of mothers entitled to child support received the full amount, 25 per cent received partial payment and 23 per cent received nothing at all. In the United States, US$4.6 billion is now owed by fathers to the children of divorce. (27)
Along with the problem of collection, there is also the problem of the low level of child support awards. In the United States, the average yearly amount ofchildsupportpaidtoa divorced woman and her children is only US$2,710 a year. Even if the sum is paid regularly, it covers less than a quarter of the average annual cost of raising one child. Inadequate child support combines with low female earnings to produce a situation in which the income of ex-wives and their dependent children plummets after divorce. According to Duncan and Hoffmann, on average, a woman’s standard of living drops 30 per cent in the five years after divorce. (28)
While the economic fallout of divorce on children has received widespread public attention, the emotional and educational consequences are less well known. There is, however, a great deal of new evidence showing that the breakup of a marriage can trigger severe psychic and behavioural problems in children. Divorce seems capable of derailing a child’s progress in school and is often the single most important cause of enduring pain in a child’s life. Many of these problems are caused by the fact that the children of divorced parents see very little of their fathers. For all the talk about the new nurturing father, the reality for many youngsters is quite the opposite: a father who disappears, abandoning his children financially and emotionally.
The data show minimal contact between non-custodial fathers and their children. Furstenberg and Harris, at the University of Pennsylvania, followed a sample of 1,000 children from disrupted families between 1976 and 1987 and found that 42 per cent had not seen their fathers at all during the previous year. Only 20 per cent had slept at their father’s house in the previous month, and only one in six saw their fathers once a week or more. (29) According to Furstenberg, “Men regard marriage as a package deal... they cannot separate their relations with their children from their relations to their former spouse. When that relationship ends, the paternal bond usually withers.” (30)
For most children, the partial or complete loss of a father produces long-lasting feelings of rejection, rage andpain, and can lead to permanent emotional damage. For example, divorce seems to be an important factor in teenage suicide, which has tripled over the last 25 years in both the United Kingdom and the United States and is now the second leading cause of death in the 15- to 24-year-old age group. A study of 752 families by researchers at the New York Psychiatric Institute found that youngsters who attempted suicide differed little from those who did not in terms of age, income, race and religion, but they were much more likely “to live in non-intact family settings” and to have minimal contact with the father. (31) In fact, divorce and the absence of the father play a role in the entire range of adolescent psychological troubles.
In addition to the emotional consequences, there is mounting evidence that family breakdown and absentee fatherhood contribute to educational underperformance and failure. A survey carried out by Columbia University and Bowling Green State University comparing the SAT scores of 295 students from father-absent homes with those of 760 students from father-present homes found that the absence of the father had a “dramatic” negative effect on scores — a result that could not be explained away by differences in income. (32) In a similar vein, a study of 2,500 young men and women by Krein and Beller found that “even after taking into account the lower income of single-parent families, the absence of a father has a significant negative effect on the educational attainment of boys.” (33)
All of the new research linking father absence to psychological stress and cognitive deficits in children serves to underline a basic theme: The problems of children in rich nations are far more complicated than the simple failure of governments to invest enough money in disadvantaged children. Granted, the resource deficit is severe and expanding, but millions of middle-class children are failing to thrive because their parents are either unable or unwilling to provide enough time and attention. There are obvious qualitative differences between a harried single mother who fails to spend time with her children because she is working at two jobs to pay the rent, and a divorced father who shuts his children out of his life to spend time with a new partner. But whether a child is rejected out of hand or merely left alone for large chunks of the day, the results are almost never good. Children do not do well when deprived of parental time and attention.
There is no one recipe for raising children. Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan tells us that precisely how a parent feeds an infant, hugs a toddler or interacts with a teenager is less important than “the melody those actions comprise.” (34) Even more critical is ensuring adequate time. If a divorced father has not seen his son in six months, it is hard for him to be a constructive presence in the child’s life. Melodies cannot work their magic unless they are given time and space.