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A man and woman in professional clothes

Middle-class working couples with kids are often stretched thin, according to research by Phyllis Moen.

Good life elusive for working couples with kids

August 15, 2006

Middle-class couples where both partners work struggle to compete in job environments designed for single earners with no family responsibilities, according to research by Phyllis Moen, McKnight Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. According to Moen, couples still are operating under outdated work policies and practices, and institutional and organizational rules designed for a one-earner, one-homemaker model. Her research was presented last weekend at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting.

"Middle class couples are stretched thin in terms of time by 'work-friendly' jobs," said Moen. "In part, this reflects the realities of a global information economy with its speed-ups, pressures to increase productivity, 24-7 availability by computer, downsizing insecurities, expectations of long hours, and little schedule flexibility."

In her paper, Moen describes evidence that middle-class dual-earner couples--who appear advantaged given their education and resources--are stretched thin, nevertheless. In fact, fewer than one in six qualify as "super couples" (those where both husband and wife have a high quality of life). And those who do fit in this category tend to be couples with no children.

In about half of the 1,060 couples she studied, Moen found that both the husbands and wives reported either low quality of life or only adequate--what she calls "good enough"--quality of life. Women working in job environments that are insecure or offer them little scheduling flexibility and control are unlikely to have individual or couple life quality.

Moen's paper, "Dual-Earner Middle-Class Time Convoys, Ecologies, and Life-Course 'Fit:' Super Couples or Couples Stretched Thin?" was presented on August 11 in Montreal, Canada.

Moen studies and has published numerous books and articles on occupational careers, retirement, families, health, gender, and social policy, as they intersect and as they play out over the life course. Her two most recent books report on data obtained through a grant supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. They are It's About Time: Couples and Careers (2003) and The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream (2005, with Pat Roehling). The Career Mystique earned the 2005 Award for Excellence in Sociology and Social Work from the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division.

To hear Phyllis Moen speak further about her research, listen to the University of Minnesota Moment.