Americans are working more and enjoying less

February 23, 1992|By Neal Lipschutz

THE OVERWORKED AMERICAN:

THE UNEXPECTED DECLINE

OF LEISURE.

Julie B. Schor.

Basic Books.

247 pages. $21.

In the labor market tug-of-war between supply and demand, the suppliers don't just hold many high cards. With the daily march of headlines about factory layoffs, corporate streamlining and the squeeze on middle managers, employees are feeling the heat no matter if their collars are white or blue.

It's an atmosphere that makes most job holders happy just to have jobs, even if they increasingly mean longer hours and more pressure. A Japanese politician recently called American workers lazy, but economics professor Julie B. Schor finds the opposite case -- we're working more and enjoying less.

If nothing else, this thoroughly researched, well-documented book provides academic backing for a gut feeling many Americans share, especially those with small children. The gist of this belief is that there seem to be barely enough hours in the day to fulfill the obligations to job and family, much less do something you just plain like to do.

One of the author's sobering conclusions is that "We could now produce our 1948 standard of living . . . in less than half the time it took in that year. We actually could have chosen the four-hour day. Or a working year of six months. Or, every worker in the United States could now be taking every other year off from work -- with pay. Incredible as it may sound, this is just the simple arithmetic of productivity growth in operation."

Incredible, indeed. Of course, we consume more than we did in 1948, so we need higher incomes to pay for that, and that means more work. Dr. Schor explores the circle of more work and more consumption in a chapter on the "insidious cycle of

work-and-spend."

Among other things, she points out that rampant materialism hasn't necessarily made us happier -- or, as the Beatles once sang, "Money can't buy me love." Of course, there were no real individuals choosing to work longer hours instead of shorter ones. The author details how this quietly came about, via weakened unions, the headlong drive toward consumerism and various "biases" toward long-hour jobs built into the capitalist system.

When she writes about work, Dr. Schor doesn't confine herself to toil at the office or plant. Though trickier to measure, household work (child care, cleaning, etc.) is time-consuming and often draining. With many mothers holding full-time paying jobs, the strains on them and their spouses can tend toward the debilitating.

Although generally accessible, the book is academic in tone and approach. The author provides an appendix where she lays out her methodology. Detailed footnotes and a bibliography will help the serious student of labor economics. The text occupies fewer than 170 of the book's 247 pages, with the rest given over to detailing source material.

Despite the current gloom and doom about the domestic economy and concern about our competitive position in world trade, Dr. Schor argues that we can have a viable economy and still treat ourselves more humanely. What about the hard-working Japanese breathing down our necks? Yes, Japanese workers put in more time on the job than Americans, but what about the West Germans, who she says don't work as much.

She points out that Western Europeans have managed to maintain standards of living despite working fewer hours: "In the international market, what matters in the long run is not how many hours a person works, but how productively he or she works them." Also, people less drained by daunting schedules can be more productive in fewer hours at work, Dr. Schor maintains.

Even if we feel harried, most of us probably would say we have it better than people who preceded us. But Dr. Schor argues that history isn't that simple. While work hours dropped for nearly 100 years until the late 1940s, she says, earlier stages of history left people more free time. Certainly material wealth was lower and life often was lived at the subsistence level, but before capitalism ". . . most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely."

What to do about all of this? Dr. Schor has some ideas, none of which may be politically palatable to Americans who perhaps now are more worried about maintaining their buying power than getting more time off. But whether or not such proposals as fixing legal standard schedules for salaried jobs and replacing overtime pay with compensatory future time off are adopted, she has offered a valuable look at how we arrived at our overworked state. It would be nice to have more time to read books like this.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer living in New York.

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