The Work-Family Interface: An Introduction


Stephen Sweet

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    For Phyllis Moen, who has taught me, and so many others, so much.


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    • Exhibit 1.1 Men's and Women's Labor Force Participation Rates (Age 16 and Older): United States 1940–2010
    • Exhibit 1.2 Employment Configurations of Married Couples: United States 2010
    • Exhibit 2.1 Charlotte—A Work-Centric Professor
    • Exhibit 2.2 Bill—A Manufacturing Worker Who Is neither Work Centric nor Family Centric
    • Exhibit 2.3 Devon—A Family-Centric Child Care Employee
    • Exhibit 4.1 Percentages of American Employers Who Make Flexible Work Arrangements Available to Some, Most, or All Employees
    • Exhibit 4.2 Some Promising Scheduling Practices Identified Among Award-Winning Health Care Sector Employers
    • Exhibit 5.1 Family Leave Entitlements in Developed Countries
    • Exhibit 5.2 Summary Rankings of Child Well-Being in Developed Economies
    • Exhibit 5.3 Google's Public Data Resources Offer Opportunities to Compare Indicators of Well-Being Across Societies
    • Exhibit 6.1 Government Public Expenditure as Percentage of GDP: International Comparisons 2005

    Series Preface

    Contemporary Family Perspectives

    Susan J.FergusonGrinnell College

    Stephen Sweet is an associate professor of sociology at Ithaca College and a visiting scholar at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. He has studied work and family issues for over 15 years, focusing on concerns such as the linked careers of dual earners, job insecurity, life course transitions, flexible work arrangements, productivity, and international variation in family supportive practices.

    In this volume, The Work–Family Interface: An Introduction, Sweet argues that work and family institutions have the potential to be harmonized, but current arrangements commonly pit the interests of caregivers against those of employers (and visa versa). Compounding the problem is the intense commitment expected from caregivers and employees—roles commonly combined in the lives of contemporary workers. Throughout this book, Sweet illustrates how better understandings of work on the home front and work in the paid economy can be used to identify the sources of strains. These understandings are used to identify the most promising policies to address critical issues confronting workers, their families, their employers, and their communities.

    The Work–Family Interface begins with an examination of the historical origins of contemporary dilemmas, showing how problems in the present result from predetermined cultural and institutional orientations. After providing this background, the next chapter reveals the diversity of work-family arrangements—focusing on a life course perspective that decenters analysis away from the archetypical traditional and dual-earner family arrangements. Sweet then reveals the strategies that families currently use to respond to work-family tensions and conflicts and the effect these paths have on lives and careers. The following chapter then looks at work-family tensions from the perspective of employers and how workplaces are responding to the needs of the changed workforce, such as by implementing flexible work schedules. Although this book focuses primarily on conditions in the United States, the fourth chapter shows the promise (as well as some not so positive implications) of following the approaches adopted in other countries. These international comparative analyses reveal that policy is largely determined by cultural values that sway collective responses to work-family tensions. The lessons learned elsewhere, as well as the increasing reliance on transnational production, indicate that effective harmonization of family requires establishing supports that enable families to provide and/or locate care. In addition, it requires establishing regulation within the work sphere—especially in respect to job security, work hours, and compensation. The final chapter concludes an assessment of the prospects for making work-family concerns a priority and suggests six national initiatives—advanced through the engagement of government—that can help reconcile work and family tensions.

    A unique feature of this book is the use of original short-essay insights by 23 different family scholars. These insights, with accompanying photos of the authors, introduce the reader to diverse family scholars and their areas of study within the fields of work and family. The authors of these essays provide additional perspectives on work-family issues that enhance one's understanding of families in the United States and globally. Another unique feature of this volume is the mini projects located at the end of each chapter, which guide readers to apply the concepts they have learned.

    The Work–Family Interface: An Introduction is appropriate for use in any class concerned with family structure, social inequality, and how employment affects families. Courses relating to human resource or talent management can also benefit from the book's careful consideration of the new workforce and the business case for flexible work. This book is a valuable resource to teachers and students in beginning and advanced courses in sociology, family studies, labor studies, women's studies, global studies, social work, public policy, and other disciplines. It also finds an audience among any person interested in comparative family studies or those who work in various human services fields, including human development, social work, education, counseling, health services, and the government. This last statement is particularly true for social service employees who work with families and other care workers. This volume can help them to better grasp the critical tensions that arise from the competing demands of families and employment.

    Author Preface

    A wealth of information exists on work and family concerns, revealing insights that were not present a few short decades ago. Compelling monographs provide rich ethnographic accounts of the challenges confronting specific groups of workers (i.e., contingent workers, flight attendants, women executives) and specific types of families (i.e., those entering retirement, young parents, those in poverty, those with children with special needs). Reports detail business-related concerns, such as how to make flexible work arrangements available and how to benchmark successes in managing work-family concerns. Social policies designed to ease work-family tensions—such as those that focus on family leave entitlements, access to childcare, and workplace protections—have been extensively studied. There are histories of change in the workplace and in the home, revealing the resonating effects that these changes have across institutions. Handbooks provide detailed treatment of concerns related to research, policy, and practice in the work-family field. And collections of resources—especially those provided through the online Work and Family Researchers Network (http://://—enable one to locate a remarkable amount of information on specific concerns.

    What is lacking, however, is a brief overview of the core concepts and issues central to the work-family area of inquiry, a primer that explains what “work-family” is and why work-family concerns are important to multiple stakeholders. This book intends to fill this gap by directing readers' attention to various ways of thinking about work-family connections and how these observations inform social policy. One concern is the variation in the ways work-family arrangements are configured and how perceptions of those configurations have shifted over time. Another concern is the way work affects family lives and how families strategically adapt to shifting opportunity structures and expectations. Equally important are the interests of employers, how they understand the impact of family on their operations, and how organizations are responding to the needs of a changed workforce. And as these concerns are identified, attention is directed to the interests of society itself and the policies and practices that shape lives on and off the job.

    This book reveals the complex ways that work and family lives intersect, with a particular attention focused on employment and families in the United States, but as that country is compared and connected to other societies. By focusing on core concepts central to the different visions of the work-family interface, and by presenting issues to ponder, this book sets out to provide readers with the insights needed to locate work-family linkages. Beyond that, it is designed to provide guidance to help clarify stances on the best strategies to resolve concerns—not only as they exist in one's own complex life but also in the lives of others.


    I thank series editor Susan Ferguson and David Repetto at Sage for inviting me to write this book, as well as for their helpful guidance. Judi Casey and Jerry Jacobs generously allowed me to use many definitions of work-family concepts as presented in the glossary of the Work and Family Researchers Network. I also greatly appreciate the willingness of leading scholars to compose brief summaries of their contributions to the field that are included in insight boxes throughout this book. These scholars include Anne Bardoel, Judi Casey, Kathleen Christensen, Shannon Davis, Laura den Dulk, Carla Freeman, Ellen Galinsky, Kathleen Gerson, Lonnie Golden, Janet Gornick, Joseph Grzywacz, Linda Haas, Brad Harrington, Jody Heymann, Erin Kelly, Ellen Ernst Kossek, Mila Lazarova, Phyllis Moen, Birgit Pfau-Effinger, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Allison Pugh, Julie Rosenzweig, and Sarah Winslow. Bhavani Arabandi provided many helpful suggestions. Devon Ritz assisted in editing the manuscript, and Chelsea Russo assisted in composing graphic designs. Kevin Cahill, Suzanne Lawler, and Jacqueline James identified many promising practices of employers, as well as the logistical challenges of implementing these ways of working, and I am grateful that they allowed me to abstract some of their research. I also thank my students, who have helped me clarify strategies of explaining and presenting the ideas present in this book. Ithaca College generously granted me release time from teaching responsibilities, which greatly eased the process of writing. Data presented on flexible work arrangements and career insecurities originate from my earlier work at the Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute and from my ongoing work at The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

    The author and SAGE would also like to acknowledge the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Christopher Solario, Chemeketa Community College
    • David Maume, University of Cincinnati
    • Janet Puls, Missouri Baptist University
    • Melanie Deffendall, Delgado Community College
    • Michele Lee Kozimor-King, Elizabethtown College
    • Mirelle Cohen, Olympic College
    • Patricia E. Literte, California State University, Fullerton
    • Ryan Orr, Millersville University
    • Yvonne Vissing, Salem State University
    • Yvonne Moody, Chadron State College

    And on the home front, a hearty thanks to my wife, Jai, for taking the lead while I worked early in the mornings and on weekends (but never at night!) and to our children, Arjun and Nisha, for being so fun and responsible.


    More than any other set of institutions, workplaces and families shape and give meaning to lives. While one intuitively knows that jobs affect family life, and family life affects work, American culture has ingrained the idea that work and family concerns are largely disconnected. For example, a person “goes to work” and “comes home to family.” But on reflection, it is apparent that many problems experienced in the workplace can be directly traced to problems in the family. Or conversely, many problems experienced in the family can be directly traced to problems in the workplace. A few illustrations should more than suffice to illustrate some of the tensions.

    • Becca is a single mother. She could be a dependable administrative assistant but is frequently absent or late to work because she cannot locate quality childcare that is affordable on her modest income. As a consequence, she relies on a combination of relatives and friends to watch her 3-year-old daughter Zoe.
    • Charlene is a lawyer and has aspirations of becoming partner in her firm. She has been told (both directly and indirectly) that if she has children the prospects for achieving this goal are slim to nil.
    • Jacob is 9 years old. He lives in a dangerous neighborhood and returns home to an empty house every day after school. He is expected to fix his own snack, do his homework, and help clean the house before his parents come home from their jobs. He is not allowed to have friends in the house alone.
    • Imelda is a domestic worker living in Dubai, where she cleans and tends to the children of her employers. She has three young children that she has left behind in the Philippines in the care of her husband Tamir. She sends money home to her family and visits them usually once per year.
    • Tom has been in a relationship with Keith for 10 years, but only a few of his coworkers know much about this dimension of his personal life. Keith has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Tom is so distracted by worry that his work is suffering. As a domestic partner, Keith is not included in Tom's employer-provided health insurance plan (which does cover married partners).
    • Peter's aging mother lives 100 miles away from his home. During Peter's last visit, it became apparent that his mother needs personal assistance. Peter is going to need to take time away from his job in order to provide immediate care, as well as locate a suitable senior residential environment for her relocation. Because Peter has only worked for his employer for less than 3 months, he wonders what will happen when he requests this time off.

    Concerns such as these are all too familiar, and it would be surprising if readers could not list numerous ways that their jobs (or those of their parents, children, or spouse) interfered with their family lives, or how their family lives have interfered with careers. And yet, all too often the hyphen that connects work to family, and family to work, is framed only in the negative, with a sole focus on institutional tensions. In many ways, because both institutions are so heavily reliant upon one another, each contributes to the other domain as well. Again, a few illustrations can establish the merits of this observation.

    • Steve is a professor who gets great satisfaction from teaching students and engaging in research. He comes home with interesting stories to tell his wife and children (well, at least he thinks they are interesting).
    • Jack and Susan operate a family business that has been remarkably successful. They now have a vacation home and ample resources to provide their children with many enriching activities.
    • Doris and Jennifer met while working at the same company. They started first as coworkers, then as friends, then as lovers, and now as life partners. They are considering adopting a child.
    • Brad, now retired, volunteers at a local elementary school. Even though he does not get paid, he considers this his “job” and takes great pleasure in helping children learn. He says, “This is my second act, the job I always wanted but never could have allowed myself to have.”
    • Silas and Karen have three children, one with special needs. Silas's job requires him to put in long hours, and Karen is the primary caretaker in the home. While not the life they had planned, Silas's career has flourished, in part, because Karen's work in the home has enabled him to devote himself to his job without distraction. They both believe this “traditional arrangement” has been best for their children.
    • Michelle is an independent contractor who does copyediting for a publisher. Her job has lots of flexibility, and she is able to select how many projects she wishes to work on. During the winter months she takes on many projects so that during the summer she can work less and visit her sister (who lives three states away). During these visits, she takes care of her sister's children while her sister continues to work in a job that does not offer this type of flexibility.

    As these cases illustrate, work can be a source of rewards that are essential to family success. Work enhances people's social networks, makes them interesting, and integrates them into activities that are often vital to the maintenance and reproduction of society. The same can be said of family and what it does for the capacity to work.

    Those lucky to have ideal family situations and ideal jobs arguably “have it all.” and yet even when one has what he or she hopes for in the home and in the workplace, sometimes the two institutions chafe against one another. Both the workplace and the family are “greedy institutions” and expect intense and undivided commitment (Coser, 1974). While maybe manageable in one domain or the other, the combined demands that each institution places on people can be unbearably heavy. The weights of these burdens are influenced not only by the amount of effort involved, but also by how tasks are synchronized. And social processes place unequal strains on the basis of gender and life stage. The results are binds that can force hard choices to select family over career, career over family, or perhaps other sacrifices such as job and family over community involvement or personal interests (Hochschild, 1997; Moen & Roehling, 2005; Stone, 2007).

    What are the consequences of these hard choices? As discussed in the chapters that follow, for workers outcomes can be diminished health, financial hardship, career compromise, ambivalence, and dissatisfaction. For their spouses, children, parents, and neighbors, the outcomes of these choices can create absences that affect the quality of support received and even threaten family stability. For employers, outcomes can result in undependable and distracted workers, as well as undermine the capacity to recruit, retain, and develop talent. And for society writ large, these outcomes can limit collective attachments to work and family such that reproductive rates fall, marginalized members are left without care, and social inequalities are exacerbated. Ultimately the hope is for work-family arrangements that do not require hard choices. Achieving this objective requires not only understanding the social structures that define the arenas in which work and family roles are performed, but also the cultural templates—the deeply embraced values and beliefs—that shape personal and societal expectations.

    To illuminate the concerns of multiple stakeholders, the chapters that follow focus on different ways of understanding work-family connections, different types of structural arrangements, and the implications for workers, their families, their employers, and their societies. The goal is not to provide an exhaustive overview of the many concerns identified, but rather to highlight the existence of the work-family interface and implications of different ways of thinking about, or structuring, that interface. Within each chapter, readers will find contributions composed by leading scholars in the work-family field, describing the implications of their major insights. In addition to referenced definitions of important work and family concepts, the book concludes with direction on how to find more information on relevant work and family scholarship, policy, and practice. Throughout, readers will learn of concepts and perspectives central to work-family scholarship and policy analysis. Each chapter concludes with a mini project, an activity that can be performed in a short amount of time to further illuminate how work-family connections may relate to one's own life and perspectives.

    One of the most important contributions of work-family scholarship is a reconsideration of taken-for-granted cultural and structural configurations, addressing the question of “how did the current arrangements emerge?” Chapter 1 considers work-family configurations from a historical perspective, identifying how many current concerns resulted from shifts in the culture and structure of society over time. Suggested in the chapter is that in society today most everyone is expected to work. And yet, policies and expectations remain grounded in old (and sometimes flawed) ways of connecting work and family. The result is that many current work-family arrangements rub against outdated institutional practices and expectations. This leads to the insight that contemporary work-family concerns originate as a consequence of structural and cultural lags, or of enduring failures to recognize the limitations of institutionalized practices.

    Who is the typical worker, and what is the typical family? Answering this question presents numerous challenges, as contemporary workforces and households are remarkably variable. And yet, having some sense of the lives of particular classes of workers and families is a central concern in identifying both the challenges present today and the most promising means of addressing those challenges. Chapter 2 considers the constellations of work-family arrangements present among different members of society. Drawing attention to how the needs and capacities to work and provide care fluctuate throughout the life course, the importance of addressing diversity is shown as an essential strategy in reconciling work and family tensions. Because the world is not “one size fits all” (and few would wish for such an arrangement) this requires policies and practices that enable people to fit work and family in customizable arrangements.

    How are workers responding to work-family tensions in their lives? To answer this question, Chapter 3 turns to the issue of personal and family adaptive strategies, the ways that people respond to work-family tensions and the consequences for life quality. This chapter focuses on concerns of agency, the ways that people make tough choices and the consequences these choices have on their lives. On the one hand, this chapter affirms the remarkable resilience of working families and that even when tensions are considerable, so are the creative responses to resolving these strains. On the other hand, many of the responses result in less than happy trade-offs. Revealing the cost associated with work-family conflict—especially as incurred on the family front—is critical to identifying what needs to change.

    Work-family tensions not only negatively affect families, they also undermine business success. To identify the magnitude of these implications, Chapter 4 focuses on the employer side of the work-family equation, considering the reasons why employers should consider their workers' family concerns when designing jobs and work expectations. When employers adopt promising practices, such as advancing flexible work arrangements, it has the potential to create positive returns such as increased employee commitment. However, there are reasons why many employers are not attentive to their employees' lives off the job, leading to a conclusion that self-interest may guide some employers to reconsider job designs, but it will not necessarily guide all workplaces to become family friendly.

    The globalization of work presents even further challenges, as it operates (to a considerable extent) beyond the confines of what any individual nation state might dictate. Adding to the complexity are huge variations in both the quality of work opportunities in any locale and the expectations of workers themselves. Chapter 5 focuses on the issue of cross-national variation in work-family contexts, as well as the impact that transnational trade, labor flows, and production have on the work-family interface. As industries and workers themselves move across national boundaries, increased complexities are emerging in the establishment of a global economy that is truly family friendly. While globalization may ease work-family strains in some societies, it can paradoxically do this by exacerbating strains in other societies. When work and family concerns are understood solely as domestic issues, the implications for those who move to find work, or who labor for absentee employers, remain hidden from policy initiatives.

    The final chapter considers societal objectives in addressing discord in the work-family interface, as informed by observations that family adaptation and business adaptation are going to have, at best, only partial success in advancing harmonization. Chapter 6 identifies the role governments can play in structuring the arena in which work and family interact. Proactive government engagement in work regulation, incentivizing behaviors, provision of resources, and other directives can positively affect the capacities to engage in work and to provide care. However, policies intersect with culture in complex ways, such that no single society can be demonstrated as having “figured out” how to reconcile work and family tensions. The question left to readers is what type of society they wish the United States to be, and the text challenges them to frame their perspective in respect to what has been demonstrated as achievable (but not without costs) elsewhere.

    This book is written primarily to help Americans understand what they should expect from themselves, their families, their employers, and their society. It also is intended to help clarify personal roles in moving society in directions that hold the greatest promise. For these reasons, the focal point of the work-family interface is the United States. This is not to move attention away from the needs of workers and families in other societies. I offer no pretense that answers to any of the concerns presented are easily resolved, but they certainly can be resolved much more effectively than they currently are. Finding the paths will require trade-offs, compromise on the part of both workers and employers, and a rebalancing of commitment to collective interests. But above all, it will require an openness to see what needs to be changed, the knowledge to know what has the potential to work, and the political will to move change forward. This book is written to help advance those objectives.

  • Further Exploration

    One of the strengths of work-family scholarship is that it draws upon the insights of multiple disciplines, including sociology, psychology, business, economics, history, gender/family studies, demography, anthropology, and law. However, because many library search tools are discipline specific, conventional means of locating work-family research can leave many stones unturned.

    For those interested in developing expertise in work and family concerns, I recommend two handbooks that consider in detail issues of disciplinary focus, research design, and practice.

    • Pitt-Catsouphes, Marcie, Ellen Kossek, and Stephen Sweet. 2006. The Work and Family Handbook: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, Methods and Approaches. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
    • Korabik, Karen, Donna Lero and Denise Whitehead. 2008. Handbook of Work-Family Integration: Research, Theory and Best Practices. New York: Academic Press.

    In addition to these books, those interested in specific concerns related to work and family can benefit by accessing the resources developed by the Work and Family Researchers Network (formerly the Sloan Work and Family Research Network). WFRN provides a wealth of resources (http://://, including the Work and Family Encyclopedia with an in-depth analysis of key concerns central to work-family inquiry, a glossary of relevant concepts that far surpasses the limited number of definitions provided in this book, and identification of key work-family scholars. The WFRN provides many teaching-related resources, such as course syllabi and class activities for those interested in teaching work-family concepts, and it offers presentations of business-related solutions to work-family concerns, including descriptions of employers who have reconfigured their work designs. The WFRN also supplies current information on work-family conferences, events, and recent news, as well as identifies scholarly research.


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    About the Author

    Stephen Sweet is an associate professor of sociology at Ithaca College and visiting scholar at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. His books include Changing Contours of Work (2013, 2008), Work and Family Policy: International Comparative Perspectives (2012), The Work and Family Handbook: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Methods, and Approaches (2005), Teaching Work and Family: Strategies, Activities, and Syllabi (2006), College and Society: An Introduction to the Sociological Imagination (2001), and Data Analysis with SPSS: A First Course in Applied Statistics (2011, 2008, 2003, 1998). He served as coeditor of the Work and Family Encyclopedia (2007–2010), and his studies on work, family, community, and inequality appear in a variety of publications, including Work and Occupations, Women's Studies Quarterly, Generations, Research in the Sociology of Work, Sex Roles, Family Relations, New Directions in Life Course Research, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Journal of Marriage and the Family, Innovative Higher Education, Journal of College Student Development, Community, Work, and Family, Popular Music and Society, and International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. His articles on teaching and curriculum development have been published in Teaching Sociology, Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom, and Excellent Teaching in the Excellent University. in addition to his research and teaching responsibilities, he serves as the director of the Sloan Early Career Work and Family Scholars Program. His current research focuses on issues relating to implementation of flexible work arrangements and the factors that shape dentification with work.

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