In the last few decades, middle-class wages, especially for men, have stagnated, and the middle class has experienced slower income growth than the bottom and top quintiles. If not for women’s increased economic contributions, middle class incomes would not have risen at all. In fall 2019, we conducted focus groups with over 100 middle-class Americans in five locations with the goal of better understanding how they navigate the “time squeeze,” produced by outdated, even family-hostile, workplace policies in the context of rising economic insecurity. The broad argument in this report is simple: the centrality of work shapes how middle-class Americans think about and utilize their time. This top-down shaping of middle–class time has negative impacts on well-being and has direct implications for their health, relationships, and overall sense of autonomy and purpose.
Senior Research Assistant & Project Coordinator - Center on Children and Families, Economic Studies, Brookings Institution
In conducting our analysis for this report, we paid special attention to how race, gender, parenthood, or occupation shaped middle-class Americans’ perceptions of time use and related well-being. We found that the strongest and clearest qualitative findings were along the lines of gender and parenthood, thus the evidence that we dig into most thoroughly in this report focuses on middle class parents navigating the balance between work and family life. Despite the fact that family structures and labor force participation have changed drastically over time – including the rise of dual-earner couples and the increase in single parent families – policies that would give workers more control over their schedules, and more flexibility to care for children, aging parents, and themselves, have lagged. At its core, the time squeeze for these middle-class Americans is centered on the struggle to fit work into the rest of their lives. In sum, both economic and family policy have failed to adapt to the changing needs of middle-class American families.
Both economic and family policy have failed to adapt to the changing needs of middle-class American families
In this report, based on our qualitative research, we document the pressure that many parents experience as they try to balance paid work and caring for others. Despite more egalitarian gender discourse in the last few decades, we found that men tended to link their identities as fathers to economic provision, often not questioning the idea that earning money was worth sacrificing time spent with their children. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to believe that being a “good mother” required intensive, constant engagement with their children, yet they also needed or wanted to contribute to the household income and forge independent identities as workers – a theme that persisted across race, parental status, and occupation. With only twenty-four hours in a day, women frequently reported feelings of failure and lingering guilt. While many participants expressed anger and resentment about their workplaces controlling and demanding more and more of their time, their solutions to the time squeeze they experienced centered on personal strategies such as self-discipline, making endless to-do lists, and emphasizing “time management.”
Although our participants framed time management as an individual responsibility, they also shared the perception that living their lives at a frantic pace, rigidly scheduled down to the minute, did not allow them to authentically connect with their families, learn and grow as people, fulfill their own physical and emotional needs, or contribute to their communities. These themes suggest that middle-class Americans may be mistakenly blaming themselves for struggles that are pervasive and systematic, and that women tend to bear a disproportionate burden of stress and self-blame when policies are not developed to address the time squeeze. Based on our qualitative findings from this work, coupled with our previous research, we argue for intentional policy efforts to decenter worktime and put more control over time in the hands of workers and their families.
Read the full report here.
Read the methodological appendix here.
This research would not have been possible without the collaboration of Econometrica, Inc. researchers and the generosity of the 127 middle class Americans who shared their stories. All names are pseudonyms. Respondent’s quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.
 Hays, Sharron (1996). The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Jennifer M. Silva did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this article or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. The author is not currently an officer, director, or board member of any organization with a financial or political interest in this article.