Working Time, Economic Well-Being, and Public Policy: Employed Parents and Older Workers in Cross-National Perspective

The following is an excerpt from the Sloan Network's monthly newsletter, The Network News, February 2006:

By Janet Gornick (with Timothy Smeeding, Gary Burtless, and Liana Sayer),
City University of New York, in association with Brookings and Syracuse and Ohio State Universities

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation generously awarded a grant to our interdisciplinary team to support a study of working time and working time policies in cross-national perspective. Our project, which is in its early stages, focuses on two demographic groups for whom flexible working arrangements are often especially highly prized- employed parents and older workers. Concentrating on these two groups, we are analyzing the links between time spent in paid work and various indicators of individual and family well-being- including, for example, the correspondence between preferred and actual work hours; time available for family caregiving as well as for leisure; and earnings and household income. We are also assessing how these outcomes, and the links among them, are shaped by public policies.

We are comparing outcomes and policies in the U.S., as of the year 2000, with those in approximately ten other industrialized countries- mostly in Europe- that have relatively similar standards of living, yet diverse time-related outcomes and varied policy environments. Our overarching goal is to better understand all facets of working time in the U.S., as well as the institutional factors that shape and constrain American workers’ decisions and options. The aim of our comparative analyses is to draw lessons relevant to the U.S. concerning mechanisms that increase work time flexibility.

Undoubtedly, there are systematic institutional differences across countries that are unlikely to be malleable in the short term, and our lesson-drawing will be rooted in an understanding of those differences. For example, the U.S. typically relies on employers to make decisions about workplace conditions whereas many European countries turn more readily to regulation. Furthermore, workers in the U.S. are less likely than those in most of our comparison countries to be represented by labor unions. Nevertheless, we are confident that our comparative analyses will have direct value for researchers and policy makers concerned with flexibility in the U.S. workplace. Our research will help uncover the effects of particular practices on working time outcomes, regardless of whether those practices are voluntarily adopted, bargained between workers and employers, or required by law. Furthermore, the U.S. does have a crucial regulatory framework- the Fair Labor Standards Act- and our findings will have implications for those interested in reforming it, whether they wish to tighten or loosen its requirements.

For our research on individuals' preferences, hours, and other outcomes, we using five cross-national micro-datasets: the Luxembourg Income Study; the European Labour Force Surveys; the International Social Survey Programme (1997 module); the Third Annual Survey of Working Conditions; and the Multinational Time Use Study. In addition, we are drawing on a wide array of secondary sources on working time regulations and practices- including, for example, the European Industrial Relations Observatory; the International Labour Organization, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In addition to preparing a series of analytic papers, we are constructing a public-access database that will present the relevant policies and institutions- including regulations that set the length of the normal work-day, the work-week, and the work-year; measures aimed at increasing the availability and quality of part-time work for parents and other workers; policies that affect the likelihood of non-standard-hour employment schedules; and measures that encourage or enable the practice of phased, or gradual, retirement.