Who's Stressed Out At Work

Higher skills mean longer hours

Are Americans overworked? In recent years, social critics have claimed that workers are putting in far more time on the job than they used to--to the detriment of personal satisfaction and family and community life. Others have disputed such claims, noting that worker surveys show that the average workweek has hardly changed since the early 1970s, staying close to 42 hours for men and 37 hours for women.

A study in the Review of Social Economy by Jerry A. Jacobs of the University of Pennsylvania and Kathleen Gerson of New York University throws light on the issue. While confirming that the average workweek has not changed much in recent decades, the two sociologists point out that significantly more people are working either long or short weeks--often to their dissatisfaction.

Since 1970, for example, the share of male workers logging at least 50 hours a week on the job has climbed from 20% to 25%, while the share of female workers putting in similar long hours has risen from 5% to more than 10%. The ranks of those working fewer than 30 hours a week have also grown.

Skilled and highly educated Americans are especially likely to work long hours, note the researchers. Among those with professional, technical, or managerial jobs, more than 33% of men and 17% of women now put in 50-hour-plus weeks, compared with 20% of men and 7% of women in other occupations. Among college graduates, the comparable shares are nearly 40% for men and 20% for women, about four times the proportions of those with less than a high school degree.

Many people working long hours may command high salaries, but that doesn't mean they're happy. Analyzing responses to a 1992 nationwide workforce survey, Jacobs and Gerson report that 45% to 50% of workers (and 80% of those working more than 50 hours a week) said they would prefer to work fewer hours, and more than 25% said they would take a pay cut to make it happen. By contrast, only 17% of workers, including many part-timers, said they would like to increase their incomes by working more hours.

As for those most dissatisfied with long hours, the researchers believe much of the discontent is among dual-earner couples--particularly those with children. Since 1970, they note, the proportion of married couples in which both partners work has soared from 36% to 60%, sharply curtailing the time available for domestic tasks and family life.

If most workers on long workweeks prefer to spend fewer hours on the job, why hasn't the labor market accommodated them? The answer, speculates Jacobs, is that many employers faced with high fringe-benefit costs would rather have full-time workers put in more time than hire additional workers. Many also economize by using more part-timers who get few perks.

The problem, says Jacobs, "is that what may be efficient for individual businesses may not be beneficial--or efficient--for society as a whole."

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