A Crazy 40-Year-Old Experiment Suggests Work-Life Balance Is Possible

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Tom Merton /Digital vision

Father holding baby girl (6-9 months) and fork of food

Anne and her husband Johannes Bulko, who have a 2-year-old son, Olvar, share one job — packer in a drug supply firm. They work alternate weeks. The spouse who’s not working stays at home with Olvar and takes correspondence courses. “Our employer doesn’t mind at all,” said Johannes, “as long as there is always one Bulko signing in in the morning.”

Sound like a novel arrangement? In fact, the details above are lifted almost wholesale from a story that ran in TIME Magazine about 40 years ago. The article described a pioneering five-year experiment, sponsored by the Norwegian government and conducted by sociologist Erik Grønseth to explore a radically different model of work-life balance. Thirty-two people took part, switching off between home and family. Some couples worked alternate days, and some alternate weeks. The Work Sharing Couples Project, devised and conducted by two men, ran from 1970 until 1975. As a point of reference, Ms. magazine was founded in 1972. (More on As Suspected, Women’s Memories Last Longer than Men’s)

“I was scared I would lose my masculinity if I did the housework and changed the baby’s nappies,” Johannes told TIME. “But that soon changed.” According to the article:

Anne called the new arrangement “marvelous,” both for herself and for her son, who benefits from seeing more of his father. “He doesn’t hang around me all the time as many other kids do around their mothers, and he’s not afraid of his father as he might be of a man he saw for just a few hours a day.”

Now, more than 30 years later, University of Oslo researcher Margunn Bjørnholt has found and interviewed 14 of the original 16 couples, to see how they fared. How much did  years of part-time work set back their careers? How much did a completely different model of work-life balance affect their marriages and their finances?

“One surprising finding of this follow-up study was that so many of the couples continued to work part-time for several years after the project concluded,” says Bjørnholt. Nine of the 14 couples continued the arrangement for another six years, presumably until all their children were in school. One couple shared a job for 30 years.

Bjørnholt found that the stint in part-time work had not set the men back irreparably. Half of the men had jobs at a managerial level, and the half who didn’t had chosen to focus on other life goals. “Several of the men reported that their caregiving experience was viewed as highly relevant to managerial jobs. They stood out from the crowd in a positive way,” she says. (More on Will Better Education Get Women Into the Corner Office?)

The women generally continued working part-time and pursued more education, so their career cycle was different, and it’s unclear how much impact the experiment had on their later work life.

But all the couples recalled the study as a time of low stress and greater quality of life, even though they often had to forgo other amenities, like a car or what the Norwegians call a “cabin.” Three of the 15 couples Bjørnholt found had divorced, but most of them said the experiment had strengthened the marriage. “It’s very fundamental that both have responsibility at home,” one husband told Bjørnholt. “This creates a basis for a shared experience and a shared understanding which make living together much simpler.”

As for finances, one couple said their only regret about the experiment was that it had affected their pensions. The rest seemed to have managed or caught up with their peers in the long term. It was particularly difficult, financially, if one of them got sick and the other had to stay home to look after both spouse and child.

But the idea that work-life balance this equitable and sere should be a possibility for both men and women — even working-class men and women — seems so utopian now as to be science fiction. Even in Norway, these arrangements did not become commonplace; Bjørnholt found that the sons of the work-share couples have not followed in their father’s professional footsteps. “But the men identify with their fathers, and seem to share an egalitarian attitude, and also seem to perceive the sharing of domestic work as important,” says Bjørnholt.

Could something this radically different be a way out of the current work-life disaster zone, where people are so pressured to keep all the balls in the air that, as University of California law professor Joan C. Williams puts it, they’re “just one sick child away from being fired?”

As the debate swirls around endless, deadening arguments about whether professional women should opt out or how much paternity leave is acceptable, it’s salutary to look at a time when people saw a wildly different way of running the whole show.

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