We Work Harder For The Money


By Juliet B. Schor

Basic -- 247pp -- $21

A new desire for time off is abroad in the land. A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of workers would favor longer vacations over pension plans, company cars, even annual bonuses. Despite the recessionary specter of lost jobs and frozen wages, leisure--not money--is today's power commodity, according to the sociologists, market researchers, and other pundits paid to know these things. If the ethos of the 1980s was to achieve and acquire at all costs, they say, in the 1990s, people would rather relax.

If so, that desire is colliding with reality: U.S. workers are actually spending more hours on the job, says Juliet B. Schor in The Overworked American. Despite all our high-tech time-savers, we enjoy less leisure today than 20 years ago--the reversal of a century-long trend toward a shorter workday. Other writers have sounded the theme of an increasingly harried population--and some have disputed it. But Schor, a Harvard economics professor, backs it up in effectively empirical--and alarming--terms. Solid reasoning and thorough numbers-crunching mark her work.

Schor's research encompasses patterns in both housework and paid work among employees from all sectors over the past two decades. Her findings: The average American now works 164 more hours per year than 20 years ago--the equivalent of an additional month. The typical American works 47 hours a week, and if current trends continue, in 20 years "the average person would be on the job 60 hours a week--for an annual total of 3,000 hours a year."

Schor's statistical analysis, which comes early, is heavy going for noneconomists. But bear with it: The Overworked American becomes a fascinating blend of social observation and economic theory as it discusses the causes of the work crunch. One culprit is technology, which by shrinking the time needed to do work has increased expectations. Automatic washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and similar devices have created spic-and-span standards unknown to housewives of earlier eras. On the office front, technological advances--modems, laptops, faxes, cellular phones, and voice mail--have all but erased the boundaries around work. It is now possible, and thus increasingly expected, for employees to be accessible and productive any hour, any day.

But the work crunch's fundamental causes, Schor asserts, lie at the heart of capitalism. Employers prefer to have people work long hours, she charges, because it costs less to work a few people longer, even if they earn overtime, than to have shorter hours for more people, all of whom receive benefits. By keeping unemployment high, this pattern also holds down wages.

In this century, the workday shrank considerably thanks to social legislation and union efforts; after World War II, "employers' natural inclination to push up hours was kept in check by prosperity." But two trends in the past 20 years revived the old management itch. One is the decline of manufacturing jobs with defined workdays and the rise of salaried workers who can be made to work longer hours at no extra cost. The second is tough economic times and the consequent downsizings in which companies stretch employees further. Moreover, the decline in real wages in the past decade means some people must take second jobs.

At times, one wonders if Schor's point is simply that overwork is an evil wrought by management. But she also blames materialistic employees. In the 1950s and 1960s, labor unions gave up demands for shorter hours in favor of benefits and pay raises. This "Faustian bargain of time for money," according to Schor, has created an insidious cycle of work and spend, as people "increasingly look to consumption to give satisfaction, even meaning, to their lives." The work crunch has exacted a terrible toll, writes Schor, including a lack of sleep, the rise of stress and stress-related ills, and the neglect of children. Women, she finds, are more overworked than men. As women enter paid labor, they substitute commercial services for some domestic labor, she notes, and men do more housework than in the past. Even so, women now work 7 1/2 more weeks a year than they did 20 years ago.

How to reclaim our lost leisure? Schor's main solution would be to give white-collar workers a defined workday and pay them overtime. "What a firm now receives courtesy of its salaried work force it should have to pay for," she declares. Overtime needn't be paid in dollars; it could be in comp time--extra hours or days off. A portion of raises could be given as longer vacations.

Working less won't hurt productivity, Schor asserts. "The vast majority of America's competitors work far less than we do....The West Europeans have managed to maintain their standard of living, cutting neither wages nor time off." Studies show that shorter hours often increase workers' efficiency, she writes, but employers resist such findings because of "inertia, skepticism, fear of the unknown and a climate of conservatism."

Schor says corporations will balk at her proposals, and she's probably right: Historically, employers have protested they can't afford reforms, from child-labor laws to the eight-hour day. But I fear her ideas are unrealistic not because they'll hurt profits, but because they clash with corporate culture. America has always worshiped hard work, and the spoils have gone to those who stay the longest hours and make work their top priority. That time-honored ethic won't easily change, even if--as Schor warns--we're no longer working our way up but working ourselves to death.

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