Selling Families Short

There was a time—really not so long ago, in the grade scheme of things—when default working hours were 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Eight hours. Included in these eight hours were a break or two, most notably a lunch break which would either be a half hour or hour in the middle of the eight hour day.

You wouldn’t have to leave your house to go to your job until 8:30 or so. You’d get home around 5:30. In totality, you’d be away from home for about nine hours for the five work days of the week.

This was “full time employment.”

Today, “full time employment” is not a nine hour daily engagement for five days every week. First off, in metropolitan areas like Washington, DC, and vicinity, travel time is almost never only 30 minutes. If organizations in Washington still had those standard 9-5 hours, a worker would usually have to leave their homes at 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning, and would not get home until 6:00 or 6:30 in the evening. In totality, you’d be away from home between ten and eleven hours during those five work days.

In the case of where I work, it takes almost exactly an hour to get from my apartment to the office in DC. So, eleven hours for me.

Now, this work-day-stretch is caused entirely by the commute. It’s not something that can be controlled, and it’s not really all that bad. But I do have a problem with a different kind of work-day-stretch.

You see, an eight hour day remains the standard in government jobs and some other fields, but at most businesses and organizations there has been an extension of actual work hours. Instead of 9-5, it might be 8:30-5:30. Or 8-5. Or 8-6. Etc. The lunch break is still there, but now you essentially aren’t paid for it.

In some places, this stretch is set in stone and required. At others, people do it voluntarily or subconsciously in response to a workaholic atmosphere. When combined with a minimum hour commute in each direction, it’s increasingly common for people to leave for work at 7 in the morning and not get home until 7 at night.

That leaves these people only 12 hours for checkbook balancing, errands, family, friends, relationships, recreation, and a full night’s sleep. It’s no wonder that so many people in our society don’t get enough sleep, hover on the verge of divorce, are thousands of dollars in debt, and morbidly obese. (That so many simply grab some fast food on their way home, instead of an old-fashioned home-cooked meal, surely doesn’t help on that last point.)

As if this weren’t bad enough, where it used to be one member of the household (historically the man) working the 9-5 work day, now it’s both heads of the household working the bizarrely extended hours. It would be difficult enough to keep a family like this together were it just the two adults, God forbid that children get mixed into this destructive cycle.

Having money is important in our world. I understand this. Without it we cannot provide food, housing, and internet access to ourselves and those we care about. But how much is really necessary? Does a family have to be raking in $90,000 combined to live comfortably? No! Not even in Fairfax County, land of the rich and pampered, is a $90,000 combined yearly salary required to live at a reasonable level of comfort and provide the necessities.

I did not pick $90,000 at random. Last I heard, that was the approximate median family income for Fairfax County, Virginia. If I recall correctly, that’s the second highest median family income for a county in the United States. Los Angeles County, California comes in at the number one spot.

That doesn’t mean that everybody here is working cushy jobs that pay 90 grand a year. It means that, while there are a lot of those cushy jobs too, many or most people are in 2-worker households. They export any children they have to day-cares (they’re on every corner) and maybe have a short conversation with them in the late evening hours before everybody trudges off to bed.

What a loving environment.

I know that some families are in a situation where it is actually necessary that both parents toil their days away at work to pay for the necessities (or, of course, situations where there simply aren’t two parents, for whatever reason). But, at least here in Northern Virginia, the majority of these 2-worker households aren’t working so damn much to pay for corn flakes and mortgages. Too often it’s for golf club memberships, that second home in Ocean City, or the brand new Hummer or Cadillac Escalade or some other type of gaudy SUV.

Nice things, I have no doubt, but is it worth giving up on a real family life to have them?

Last semester I took a class in public budgeting, and one of the key points of the course was that budgeting is a way of setting priorities. This applies as much to the budgeting of time as it does to the budgeting of money. If you spend an exorbitant amount of time at a job and occasional moments with your family, and don’t have a true need that requires you operate that way, you are saying to yourself and to others that you value money over family.

It is usually about that simple.

If your priorities are on your family—which, in my humble opinion, is where they should be—then you would cut back on work hours. If it’s financially possible (and for most people it is, with a couple strategic cuts in expenses) one parent should stay at home with young children, and—again if possible—be home within an hour or so of when the children get home from school each day until they are old enough and mature enough to be by themselves for semi-long periods of time. Before the feminists jump at the chance to complain, I never said the mother should should be the one staying at home with the children. Any parent will do, but either the father or the mother should be home—at least in general—to raise their children until they are of reasonable age.

In many parts of Europe, life doesn’t work the same way it does here in the U.S. Work hours are shorter, in some countries it is even customary to allow a lengthy siesta in mid-afternoon. The great surprise is that workers in these countries are just as efficient, if not more so, than their American counterparts. The ongoing workaholic American quest for more and more moolah serves nobody.

There is no harm in being dedicated to your job. There is certainly no harm in working long hours if it’s required to provide for yourself and for your family. If it’s managed properly, there probably isn’t too much harm in having a 2-worker household either. But, there is something fundamentally wrong with a society that shows so little dedication to families and such a disproportionate dedication to work.

People would never consider selling their families for $90,000, but they seem to have no problem selling them short.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.