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We Work Too Hard

But you already knew that, didn't you? Hard work ceases being a good thing when it takes over everything else in our lives. Here are some reasons that's been happening. And a few thoughts on what we can do about it.

By Bill Beuttler (Boston Magazine, Nov. 2001)

Blame the Puritans. You remember those dour, austere folks, don't you, from your high school history and Hawthorne? The white European settlers who, during the Great Migration of the 1630s, fled religious persecution and what they considered the laxity of the Church of England for New England, building themselves communities right here on Massachusetts Bay. There they lived out their somber lives working like hell in their assorted, mostly secular callings to make damn sure they'd end up in heaven. America's founding fathers' forefathers were a hard-working bunch, all right, so much so that they set the standard for what the great German sociologist Max Weber would later come along and dub the Protestant Ethic.

"The Puritan," wrote Weber in his 1905 classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, "wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order."

Nearly four centuries after the Puritans' heyday, Americans once again find themselves working like hell. Granted, we're working fewer hours than Americans once did. And the work that many of us do is softer and pleasanter than it was for most laborers at the turn of the last century. But the numbers of hours we work, after reaching historical lows in the 1930s, have been climbing back upward. At least the Puritans insisted everyone take Sundays off; nowadays, it's not uncommon for white-collar workers to squeeze in a few extra hours of work at home each day over what's supposed to be their weekend. Many neglect to use up their annual vacation allotments. (A miserly two weeks is the standard here, versus the four weeks or more mandated throughout Western Europe.) Those who do take vacations, as often as not, wind up lugging work with them and checking in with their offices while they're away, via such allegedly labor-saving devices as e-mail, fax machines, and wireless phones.

In the last 10 years alone, Americans' average annual number of work hours increased from 1,942 to 1,978, the International Labor Organization reported in a study released on Labor Day weekend. Only workers in South Korea and the Czech Republic toil longer. In Japan, where workaholism ran so rampant in the '80s that salarymen sometimes dropped dead at their desks from karoshi ("death by overwork"), the average annual per capita number of hours worked actually dropped from 2,031 in 1990 to 1,842 a decade later. Canada (1,790 to 1,767), Britain (1,767 to 1,719), and Germany (1,573 to 1,480) also recorded significant dips. France, meanwhile, passed legislation reducing its standard workweek to 35 hours beginning last year.

Only in America have working hours increased. The authors of the International Labor Organization report chalked that up to the American psyche that says workers have to put in longer hours to make the best impression.

That's even more the case in and around Boston. Three of the four pillars of the city's white-collar economy -- health care, financial services, and high technology -- are renowned for the vast numbers of hours logged by those employed in them. Even the fourth, higher education, is no longer necessarily the soft touch it once was now that so-called gypsy scholars -- part-time adjunct faculty who teach at several institutions and are excluded from the tenure track -- are being used to teach more and more classes.

Little wonder, then, that when California State University at Fresno social psychologist Robert Levine dispatched grad students armed with stopwatches to 36 U.S. cities, Boston turned out to be the nation's fastest paced. New York City, the presumptive favorite, actually finished third. (Buffalo, somewhat surprisingly, was ranked second, while two other Massachusetts cities, Worcester and Springfield, came in sixth and eighth, respectively.)

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The history of labor in the first half of the 20th century was one of workers successfully fighting for fewer work hours and increased leisure. In the 1930s, in particular, a time when overproduction was fueling the Great Depression, proposals for shortened work hours abounded. W.K. Kellogg famously cut his cereal plant's workweek to 30 hours in the early thirties, hoping to spread around what work remained available and avoid laying off employees. The English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell went so far as to propose a 20-hour workweek in his only partly tongue-in-cheek 1932 essay "In Praise of Idleness." At the end of that year, future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black -- then a U.S. senator from Alabama -- sponsored and later got passed through the Senate a bill drafted by the American Federation of Labor that limited the workweek to 30 hours. More lastingly, the Depression era birthed the Wagner Act of 1935, which protects the rights of workers to unionize, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which created the minimum wage and set the 40-hour standard workweek.

By 1940, most full-time employees were working an eight-hour day five days a week. As the country became increasingly affluent in the economic boom years after World War II, and as technology and automation began rendering some jobs superfluous, experts confidently predicted even further increases in leisure. "In a society of high and increasing affluence," wrote Harvard economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith in 1958, in his still influential The Affluent Society, "there are three plausible tendencies as regards toil. As the production of goods comes to seem less urgent, and as individuals are less urgently in need of income for the purchase of goods, they will work fewer hours or days in the week. Or they will work less hard. Or, as a final possibility, it may be that fewer people will work all the time." Other writers picked up on and continued pushing Galbraith's notions into the 1960s and early '70s, worrying that the nation soon might have to face the problem of excess leisure.

Then came reality. Starting most noticeably with Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor's 1991 bestseller, The Overworked American, scholars and journalists began pointing out that Americans were increasingly overworked and underleisured. Perhaps not coincidentally, several of the best of those books are by Boston or Boston-linked authors. We asked four of these writers -- Schor, Brandeis professor and former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich (The Future of Success); BC political science prof Alan Wolfe (One Nation, After All); Jill Andresky Fraser (White-Collar Sweatshop), finance editor of Boston-based Inc. magazine; plus Galbraith himself, who lives in Cambridge -- what had happened since Galbraith's prediction to alter conditions so dramatically. Why are we working so hard and what can we do about it?

Here are their answers.

It's all in our heads. Some people don't believe we work as hard as we think we do. Five years ago, two social scientists, based on close study of detailed time diaries kept by workers themselves, independently concluded that full-time employees actually work less than they used to, or about 37 hours a week on average. Asked beforehand to guess the number of hours they logged weekly, the workers typically overstated the amount by about four hours. Those who claimed to work the longest hours exaggerated the most. People who said they put in about 70 hours of work a week, for instance, were able to document only about 53.

Of course, 53 hours a week hardly qualifies as only when the standard is supposed to be 40. But the time studies do call attention to how people's perceptions influence the extent to which they do or don't feel overworked. One of the researchers who conducted a time study blamed the discrepancy between the hours people work and the hours people think they work on how harried they are away from the office.

The flip side is that some people who do spend a lot of time doing what most people would consider work don't seem to notice that they're working. Galbraith, for example, thinks that lumping heavy-lifting blue-collar jobs with the work done in offices by more affluent workers is misguided. The latter, when it is pleasant and engaging enough mentally, can actually be considered a form of leisure, he suggests. Boston-born and -bred Benjamin Franklin, no Puritan where wine and women were concerned, did share his forebears' fondness for keeping busy. "Leisure," he wrote in his Poor Richard's Almanack, "is Time for doing something useful."

Putting leisure to good use can render it indistinguishable from work, but that, historically, has been a good thing. "In the past," explained Bertrand Russell, "there was a small leisure class and a larger working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice; this necessarily made it oppressive, limited its sympathies, and caused it to invent theories by which to justify its privileges. These facts greatly diminished its excellence, but in spite of this drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism."

In modern terms, it isn't just the potential for a big payoff that provokes top software designers, say, to work ridiculously long hours. In many cases they also genuinely love their work and the potential that it has to change the world.

Not that everyone believes in devoting leisure time to work. "Among the affluent," notes Galbraith, "there's a certain trade-union attitude -- a certain amount of leisure is urged as a standard of behavior. If you seem to be working too hard, you're breaking down the reputation of your friends, suggesting by example that they should work harder."

Galbraith, who found time outside the classroom to write 31 books, is himself a living testament to the adage, "Find a job you like and you'll never work a day in your life." Asked point blank if he felt he worked hard during his career, he replies, "Oh no. I enjoyed every minute that I was writing."

"So in some sense you were working, but it didn't feel like work because you enjoyed it?"

"That's right," he says. "That was one of the things I looked forward to."

Killer competition. "What is to blame?" asks Atlantic Monthly senior editor Jack Beatty in his online review of Jill Fraser's White-Collar Sweatshop. "The short answer is price competition. The post-war era can now be seen as the golden age of oligopoly. A few large companies dominated each of the major industries, competing on product quality and image . . . but not on price, the race-to-the-bottom form of competition that can put companies out of business. They tolerated the union wage -- 35 percent of workers were unionized by the late 1950s -- as a cost of doing business they could pass on to consumers, who, in an exclusively national market, had no choice but to pay up."

That started changing in the 1970s. The oil embargo of 1973 drove up the price of doing business. Japan and assorted developing nations began competing seriously with American manufacturers. By the mid-1990s, with the rise of the Internet and other technological advances, the world of business had become exceptionally competitive.

The upside, as Robert Reich explains in his book The Future of Success, is that it is easier for consumers "to find and get better deals from anywhere and . . . switch instantly to even better ones. These technologies are radically sharpening competition among sellers, which in turn is provoking a staggering wave of innovation. In order to survive, all organizations must dramatically and continuously improve -- cutting costs, adding value, creating new products. The result of this tumult is higher productivity -- better, faster, cheaper products and services of every description."

The downside is that employers must squeeze more and more work out of fewer and fewer workers in order to keep up. Jobs are no longer as secure as they once were, and only those most willing to work the extra hours demanded by employers are likely to keep them. And because earnings are less predictable, no one dares pass up extra work when it's available -- even if that means working overtime.

Corporations rule. Corporate America reacted to the demise of its national oligopolies with mergers and acquisitions, which took off in the 1980s and '90s. Corporations poured millions, through lobbying and campaign contributions, into getting NAFTA and GATT passed to gain access to cheap labor overseas. They laid off tens of thousands to make themselves more competitive. And, because so many workers had a sliver of the resultant profits passed along to them through stock options and profit sharing, many people were in favor of it. After all, stocks generally went up whenever job cuts were announced.

Jill Fraser, in White-Collar Sweatshop, contends that corporations became addicted to layoffs and other cost-cutting, trimming past fat deep into muscle and bone. The layoffs, in turn, are a key reason people work so hard. Many wind up doing the work of laid-off colleagues in addition to their own normal duties. "The donkeys that are left are carrying two packs instead of one pack," a retired Chrysler executive from suburban Atlanta told Alan Wolfe in One Nation, After All. "The work didn't go away. They just got rid of the people."

Fraser came across the same thing time and again in researching White-Collar Sweatshop. To make matters worse, she found, the layoffs at many companies came in waves. "I interviewed one person who had worked for a publishing company -- again, layoff after layoff after layoff -- and now the latest round of layoffs was happening," Fraser recalls. "This was a woman who was single-handedly doing the job that once had been done by three people at her level, each of whom had once had an administrative assistant. She was now doing it all by herself after these repeated layoffs. Another round of layoffs was happening. She was told by her employer, 'Don't worry, you're so great we're never going to let you go.' She begged to be included in the layoff because, she said, 'I cannot physically work any harder than I am. It's not possible for me.'"

The decline of unions. As the power of corporations rose in the 1980s and '90s, the power of unions declined. Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers in 1981. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and numerous congressional Democrats went against union wishes and passed NAFTA into law in 1993. By 2000, only 13.5 percent of the total American workforce belonged to unions, versus 30 percent and more throughout the 1950s -- in part because so much of the economy had shifted from manufacturing to white-collar and service-oriented work not generally associated with unions.

Collective bargaining, obviously, makes it easier to push for shorter hours, but in The Overworked American Juliet Schor points out that union leadership essentially gave up the fight for reducing the workweek after World War II. "As a middle-class standard of living came within the reach of more and more working-class people, their desires for shorter hours could no longer be taken for granted," she writes. In 1956, at the first joint conference of the newly merged AFL-CIO, "one official claimed confidently that workers had become 'eager to increase their income, not to work fewer hours.'"

Conspicuous consumption. Thorstein Veblen coined the term in 1899, in his acerbic and insightful landmark work, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Back then, the idea referred mostly to the tendency of the rich to strut their potency through superfluous, deliberately wasteful expenditures -- a behavior Veblen linked, anthropologically (and amusingly), to that of the chieftains of primitive tribesmen. By midcentury, as the middle class blossomed and grew increasingly leisured in the decades following World War II, a lower-rent version of conspicuous consumption evolved, complete with a catch phrase of its own: "keeping up with the Joneses." If the family in the split-level up the block upgraded from an icebox to a refrigerator, or, a bit later on, from a black-and-white TV to a color model, their neighbors soon felt obliged to do likewise.

Today we have what Juliet Schor calls "the insidious cycle of work-and-spend." We work like the devil to keep buying more and better stuff. But as real estate prices escalate (and Boston's are among the nation's highest), many of us find ourselves forced to downgrade our "keeping up with the Joneses" upgrades. Our parents bought bigger and nicer houses; pathetically, we make do with penny-ante stuff like moving up from Budweiser to Guinness or Tremont; from Folgers or Maxwell House in a can to fancy beans from Peet's or Starbucks; from French's yellow mustard to Grey Poupon.

The failure to maintain boundaries. Even in our leisure time, we're on call. Voice mail, e-mail, wireless phones, laptops, and digital personal organizers keep us all in touch around the clock. Even better than pestering employees with work long-distance, from an employer's point of view, is getting them to stick around and do it at the office. There's a reason so many Boston-area employers offer on-site dry cleaning, banking services, oil changes, tailors, shoe repair, and even barber shops (see "The Benefits"). Why they furnish free massages and stress-reduction programs. Why child care is provided during school holidays and snow days, why accounting firms bring in free dinners during tax season, and why vending machines at so many dotcoms dispense their chips, sodas, and candy bars free of charge. Our employers don't want us to leave. And if we do leave, they want us to be in touch. Several arrange for free home Internet connections and discounts on those damnable cell phones.

"The proliferation of such fancy workplace amenities is, we're told, a function of the tight labor market and the war for top talent," Fortune magazine declared back before the dotcoms led the rest of the economy into recession. "But it's also part of another war: the war for time."

No wonder we feel overworked. So, then, what do we do about it? During the first half of the 20th century, problems that had arisen from the Industrial Revolution were attacked with legislation, from one Roosevelt's trustbusting to the other's cornucopia of New Deal initiatives. Some of our experts suggest that new laws and government programs are needed to bring about saner workloads now.

Robert Reich has a handful of proposals, some of which simply follow Europe's lead. "Most advanced nations have laws requiring four weeks vacation," Reich says. "And family leave [for childbirth, elder care, etc.] is paid for, not a right that comes without pay as in this country." More ambitious: his proposal to consider replacing unemployment insurance with what he calls "earnings insurance," which by minimizing income uncertainty perhaps reduces workers' incentive to take on excess workloads.

"Say your earnings dip 50 percent from one year to the next," Reich explains. "The earnings insurance would make up half the difference. If your earnings doubled from one year to the next, you would pay some percentage of the gain into the earnings insurance fund. Such earnings insurance would help not only the poor but also middle- and upper-income people anxious about the possibility of suddenly losing their economic footing. And such insurance would be extended to anyone, including part-time workers."

Juliet Schor advocates requiring businesses to set their own standard workweeks, paying employees with compensatory time instead of overtime when those standards are exceeded. Comparatively reasonable schedules could be used as recruitment tools: If brokerage A sets its requirement at 70 hours a week, and brokerage B at 60, and if the two pay comparable salaries, talent will inevitably flow toward brokerage B.

Schor also urges people to consider "exiting the squirrel cage" -- to simplify their lives and break that "insidious cycle of work-and-spend." Some are heeding that advice, to judge by the number of books out there associated with the simplicity movement. (Paradoxically, America's fastest-paced city has also been a standard-setter when it comes to simple living: Henry David Thoreau's Walden was published here in 1854.)

Jill Fraser looks toward types of collective action on the part of workers to whittle down their workloads. Using the successful rise of socially conscious investing via mutual funds as a model, she suggests punishing companies that demand too much work in a way they understand: by directing investment money away from their stock. She also predicts a rebirth of unionization, this time among white-collar workers. "In an economic environment in which even the American Medical Association has decided that it makes sense to organize doctors (at least those who are salaried employees of HMOs and hospital corporations)," she writes, "anything seems possible." She quotes a senior manager at one of the nation's largest banks predicting that "10 years from now the entire financial service sector will be unionized. Banks have backtracked on all the things they once did to keep unions out. And people are angry."

Alan Wolfe thinks it's up to individuals themselves to cut back on work if they want to. So does Galbraith.

"So," Galbraith is asked, "the people who are not taking advantage of the amount of leisure that they might have, that would make it their own fault? If they feel like they're working too hard, you'd say, 'Well, knock it off.' Is that it?"

"That," he replies, as if the answer could not possibly be more obvious, "is one of the privileges of affluence."

Just say no, then. This was, of course, the anti-drug abuse slogan of a Republican first lady, one whose husband was known to work relatively short hours, vacation regularly, and take frequent naps. Our current Republican president came into office this year with a similar reputation. Several months before the World Trade Center bombings turned his and everyone else's life upside down, pundits began suggesting that George W. Bush's approach to work -- so unlike the workaholism of the Clinton administration -- might have a trickle-down effect.

President Bush went home to Texas for four weeks of vacation in August. Within two weeks of his return to work, the nation found itself at war with terrorism. Who knows? If the president makes quick progress in that war and then resumes his old work habits, perhaps Americans will abandon overwork the same way men quit wearing hats when they saw JFK going around bareheaded in the early '60s.

The attacks themselves slowed things down for most workers for a few days. On the morning of September 11 and in its immediate aftermath, people found that there were more important things in life than work. They gathered around office televisions watching that day's tragedy unfold. They phoned friends and loved ones in New York and Washington to see if they were safe. Water-cooler conversation turned to serious matters for a change. Even Wall Street shut down for four days.

The question is whether the lesson -- that it's possible to turn our attention to more important things than work occasionally -- will stick. Or will business jump right back ahead of everything else in people's lives? Whether it's done collectively, via unions or legislation, or individually, worker by worker deciding that enough's enough, there's only one sure-fire way for people to quit working too hard.

Stop doing it.

© Boston Magazine