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Out-of-Sync Work Shifts, Out-of-Sync Families

Child care is a pressing need for those with odd work hours.


We hear a lot about how Americans are overworked and expected to commit to long hours on the job. But little attention has been paid to another issue that is just as important as how long they work: when they work.

Irregular work schedules, mandatory overtime and untraditional work shifts are affecting the lives of millions of working Americans.

About 40% of full-time employees work nontraditional shifts, and at least 7 million mothers of children under the age of 15 work nonstandard hours.

These numbers are projected to increase sharply as U.S. job growth occurs in areas that rely on shift workers--personal services and health care. And, with globalization, many white-collar workers will find themselves working odd hours.

Increasingly, financial services and communications personnel, computer systems engineers, lawyers, managers and other support personnel are working in shifts because they have to be available at all hours to serve clients around the world.

Although fewer Americans are working the standard 9-to-5 workday, the world remains structured as if they were. Meeting the needs of children is a huge challenge because the parents are out of sync with the timetable of the larger society.

Parents must grapple with arranging off-hours child care and finding adult-supervised activities for their school-age children when school is out and they, the parents, are still at work.

The after-school hours can be a special problem. Supervised after-school programs for school-age children are all too rare.

Nationwide, between 2 million and 6 million youngsters under 13 regularly care for themselves, and 44% of families do not have any regular after-school care for their children.

Research tells us that children can be at risk if left to their own devices after school. Between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., crime and engagement in other undesired behavior among teenagers go up. The FBI reports that about 29% of all juvenile offenses occur on school days between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Some couples cope by working opposite shifts, but this juggling puts additional strain on these families. Harriet Presser of the University of Maryland reports that divorce rates are high among split-shift couples.

This is a problem that can't be solved by individual families. All our social institutions have to be revamped to meet the realities of the new economy.

Fortunately, we have a comprehensive model for dealing with these problems.

The armed services have 24-hour child care, transportation systems and health care for their personnel, creating a system that operates around the clock, just as their people do.

Why not take a page from their book and create a system that actually works for the real lives of civilian Americans?


Rosalind Chait Barnett is director of the Community, Families and Work program at Brandeis University. Caryl Rivers is a journalism professor at Boston University.

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