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Time Use

Conceptions Of Time In Families, Major Trends In Time Use In Families

Family scholars have traditionally been interested in the role of time in shaping the organization of family experience. Anthropologists who studied families in preindustrial cultures were interested in the way that families lived their lives according to the temporal rhythms of nature, with the tides, the seasons, and the movement of the sun giving structure to everyday life. Although different time devices such as sundials and water clocks have been used throughout the ages to measure time, it was only in the thirteenth century that the mechanical clock came into being as a more precise measure of time. Mechanical clocks were first developed in medieval monasteries as an aid to the discipline of monastic life (Whitrow 1988). Over the course of the fourteenth century clocks became more numerous on church steeples and in the main town belfry. These public clocks, which began with only an hour hand (because people then did not have the same concern with precision as we currently have) were central to community organization, bringing citizens together to defend, celebrate, or mourn. During this time, families had much less privacy, and the temporal routine of everyday life was shaped more by community activity. In contrast with the tendency to think of current nuclear families as very private and determining their own daily schedules, families during this period were more likely to be defined as households with boarders and a regular flow of guests that contributed to a much looser, and in some ways a more chaotic, everyday routine. Celebrations that we now typically associate with being special family time such as Christmas, weddings, or funerals were more likely to be treated as community, rather than family, celebrations (Gillis 1996). Although family time has become increasingly important among dual-earner families today, this is a concept that had no meaning until it was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century by the Protestant middle classes during the Victorian era. Prior to this, families experienced their leisure time through participation in community fairs, games, and festivals. During the Victorian period, families became more focused on and invested in children. As a result, family times such as Christmas, Easter, Chanukah, birthdays, graduations, confirmations, and bar and bat mitzvahs played an increasingly important role in marking family time as special and unique. It was also during this time that Sunday became the archetypal day for family time and the family dinner, the living room parlor and children's bedtimes took on importance as part of family rituals.

Mechanical clocks also had a profound impact on the way that time was valued and controlled. With the rise of the money economy in the fourteenth century, the value of time began to rise (Whitrow 1988). As money circulated, time came to be associated with commercial value because the activities used to generate money or profit could now be weighed in terms of how much time it took to ready a product for sale. It was during the period of industrialization and the rise of the factory system (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) that clocks more firmly established the close association between time and money. Karl Marx wrote about the clock as a being a precise measure of labor activity that was the basis for increasing the efficiency of labor power, which was so important for generating a profit in capitalist industries. In the late 1800s, Fredrick Taylor (i.e., the Taylorization of the workplace) introduced time and motion studies to the shop floor with the intention of making the manufacturing process more precise, calculated, efficient, and profitable.

These economic changes had important implications for the organization of time in family life. Capitalism created a split between wage labor, now taking place in the factory, and the forms of production that were previously taking place in the family and the community. The separation of work and family during the onset of industrial capitalism played a key role in bracketing free time and family time as different from work time. In addition, it gave a different meaning to the work carried out by men and women. Because men were the first to be called on for jobs in the factory, their time came to be more highly valued because it received a wage and was connected with the production of profit in the company. By contrast, women's work became private labor in the home and was under-valued because of its disconnection with commercial activity. Continuing disparities in the value of women and men's time have their roots in these economic developments.

Dramatic changes in the patterns of women and men's work since World War II have had an enormous impact on the way that time is organized in families. Following the war years when women were recruited to work in the factories to support the war effort, governments created policies that restricted women from working in many occupations and encouraged women to stay at home and care for families. This was short-lived. The rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a dramatic return of women to the paid labor force. Buoyed by developments in birth control, equal pay policies, and the rise of day care, women moved into the labor force in massive numbers such that the majority of women in families are now in the paid labor force (see Trends below). This had profound implications for the organization of time in these families. Whereas single breadwinner families had schedules that involved a clear division of labor and tended to be dominated by the work schedules of the husband, dual-earner families were faced with a convoluted division of labor and a much more challenging set of negotiations for working out the everyday family schedule. Competing schedules and organizing day care coverage for preschool children, as well as reallocating household responsibilities, were central to the creation of the daily routine. During this same period, family structures also changed dramatically, due in large part to the rise of divorce. As a result, stepparenting, single parenting, and custody arrangements created different challenges for planning, coordinating, and organizing time in families.

Although the mean number of paid working hours for individual women and men did not increase dramatically in the United States between 1970 and 1997 (Robinson and Godbey 1997), there are three factors that have contributed to a growing feeling of time urgency in families ( Jacobs and Gerson 1998). First, the dramatic increase in the number of wives and mothers in the paid labor force has reduced the amount of unpaid familial support in the home. Second, there have been increases in the number of hours (ten hours per couple between 1970 and 1997) that husbands and wives combine to spend in the labor market, again resulting in a net drain on family time. Third, there has been an escalation of overwork (working fifty or more hours per week) among the well educated in managerial and professional positions. Canadian data from the 1998 General Social Survey indicate that those between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four who were married parents and employed full-time faced the biggest time stresses: overall men worked an average of 48.6 hours and women 38.8 hours of paid work activities (Statistics Canada 1999).

Globalization has also had an impact on the experience of time in families. During the time when community life was organized around the main town clock, there was no coordination of time from one town to another. Time was local, and the clock was set according to local standards. The sophistication of travel through the use of trains in the late nineteenth century created a demand for the coordination of these local times. Watches and personal clocks also became more accessible during this time and added to the pressure to find a system for standardizing time. These efforts culminated in the creation of uniform system of world time called Greenwich time at the International Conference on Time in Paris in 1912.

Since then, the development of sophisticated computer technology and the breakdown of international trade barriers have given rise to the globalization of the world economy. These developments have taken time from the town belfry and put it at the center of a highly sophisticated world system of trade and communication. Globalization has broken down the boundaries of space and in so doing has delocalized time and loosened it from its moorings in the community environment. The Internet gives access to a world that never sleeps. Globalization has created new time pressures, new anxieties about time that go well beyond the traditional anxiety associated with getting to work on time. Faxes, conference calls, electronic mail, and the interdependence of global stock markets require a temporal coordination that extends beyond one's immediate geographical context. For families, vigilance to the multiple demands of world time results in constant sensitivity of time, a hurried pace of life, an expectation of growing possibilities in the efficient use of time, and the potential for more competing demands in the individual use of time within families.

Technology plays a major role in reshaping the meaning of family time. Devices such as cellular phones and home computers have made the boundary between work time and family time much more permeable than it ever was. By opening a hole in the fence that surrounds private family time, technology keeps families in a state of interruption. At the same time, the availability of technology within the home also appears to be playing a role in keeping the family closer to home. The increasing availability of VCRs, compact disks, home computers, and home exercise machines means an increase in the opportunities for leisure at home. Devices such as pagers, once used only for business purposes, are now commonly used for family reasons with children and aging parents. Similarly, electronic mail, phone mail, fax machines, and computer networks create an opportunity for family members to do their paid work at home. Television, too, with its expanding band of cable channels, continues to draw families around the electronic hearth. Television represents one of the main uses of free time in the United States. For example, people with grade-school educations spend more than half of their free time watching television compared with just over one-third for college graduates (Robinson and Godbey 1997).

Forces such as industrialization, information technology, and the globalization of the world economy have given rise to a perception that the pace of life has accelerated dramatically. The values of speed and efficiency have come to dominate daily life. As the world puts on pace with respect to the exchange of information and commercial goods, so too have families put on pace as a way of adapting to these changes (Daly 1996). Our language of time is revealing: we talk of time famine, time compression, multitasking, and time scarcity. One of the ways that families cope with the demands of speed and efficiency is through time-deepening whereby they plan activities with a precise regard to time, carry out more than one activity at a time, or substitute a faster leisure activity for one that takes a long time (Robinson and Godbey 1997).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families