Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment by Aliya Hamid Rao – Book Review

Date Posted: Thursday 27th May 2021

Publisher: University California Press, 2020

Review by Hannah Whelan 

A book about unemployment has never seemed so opportune. As several countries begin relaxing their lockdown restrictions, it’s clear how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our job market. As the world re-opens, thousands of households now face economic insecurity.

How timely then, that Aliya Hamid Rao’s book, Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment, has hit the shelves.

However, Rao hasn’t penned a guide. Unless you’re a white, wealthy couple in the United States, Crunch Time is far from the job seekers ‘how to’. It is, instead, an animated social commentary on the gender divisions of unemployment. And it’s an accessible one at that.

In conversation with Rao, she explained her rationale behind the book. Rao joined the International Labour Organisation in Geneva during the 2008 financial crash. At this time, the employment landscape was bleak and precarious work was abundant. As she moved into academia, Rao was struck by how the job market developed. Or rather, how it didn’t.

Fast forward a decade or so, and precarity remains synonymous with work. As laid bare in Crunch Time, even middle-upper-class professionals have had to contend with the uncertainties inherent in the US economy. Workers and their families across the class spectrum have suffered job losses, with COVID-19 increasing such experiences.

Rao has divided Crunch Time into three sections: Gender and Space During Unemployment; Gendered Time in Job Searching; and Gendered Time in Housework. Her exploration of space, time, and household chores is framed through case studies, each epitomising key themes and common experiences found in the data. A lot of which reiterates the persisting gendered norms around work, even though her sample aren’t actually working.

One key concept Rao describes is the ‘ideal job seeker norm’. The concept builds on the ‘ideal worker norm’, whereby workers secure stable, well-paying jobs that require demonstrated commitment to longer hours, relocation, and being overall “devoted”. This concept has been powerful in explaining how the organisation of work is gendered, as the ‘ideal worker’ is implicitly a man whose wife frees him from domestic responsibilities in the home.

Rather than the institutions of paid work being the main contributor to gender inequalities, the ‘ideal job seeker norm’ conceptualises how couples’ intimate interactions are the driving force. This is a fascinating area of scrutiny, as Rao shows how men are more able than women to govern their daily schedules around job searching, regardless of whether they were previously the breadwinner or the amount of domestic labour there is.

Though such concepts touch on the morality attached to finding work, the emotional toil of unemployment is surprisingly light in Crunch Time. The volatility and uncertainty of securing income can have a hazardous effect on individuals, especially when living with a partner and holding responsibility for a family. The wounds and fractures that unemployment exposes are also different depending on an individual’s gender.

In discussion, Rao explained how the emotional responses to finding work were in fact the basis of her findings. She used participants’ emotional experiences as the starting point in unpacking other ideas described, such as differing uses of time and space. Limitations on word count meant that she had to write up these underpinnings elsewhere.

Considering couples were the professional middle classes with higher levels of income, Rao described that the samples’ somewhat adverse psychological responses to losing work were regrettably not more described. Crunch Time may have touched on the emotional toil of unemployment, but not to their truest depths.

All in the same breath, Crunch Time does expand on other notable ideas and concepts. This was no doubt due to Rao’s research approach. For the study, there were 110 in-depth interviews conducted, with individuals from 48 families. Rao also led four intense family observations. Her disconnection from the couples – an academic researcher who isn’t herself married – supported her unique and deep analysis, as she became many participants’ confidente. There is a noticeable sense of alliance in some of the accounts, with couples offloading tensions that have surfaced due to unemployment in the home.

Crunch Time offers readers a vantage-point into the gendered divisions of the American middle-class. Rao was successful in creating lively narratives to illustrate unemployment, an at times bleak subject matter (even for the feminist economist).

Fellow academics and policy-makers alike would do well to build on her accounts and accelerate research beyond these hetro-normative, nuclear family structures. Despite the strong argument for analysing this particular social class – socio-cultural arbiters – extensive study into the experiences of unemployment for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour as well as gender-nonconforming couples would be a significant progression in comprehending the inequalities that show up in our lives, as economic instability continues to shape them.

Hannah Whelan is a feminist researcher and activist who works across menstrual equity and period poverty, community development, and other social projects.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Women’s Budget Group.