The Out-of-Work and the Overworked


March 06, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- Somewhere on the evening news, in between stories of various disasters and ads for various bodily dysfunctions, there appears the airline pilot.

Well-paid but discontented. Handsome as the anchor man himself, but weary with his working man's lot.

The pilot in this commercial vignette has come to his stockbroker to plan for the future before his horizons are reduced to Polident and Serenity.

He is in a rut -- if there are ruts in the sky -- going back and forth between Detroit and Minneapolis. Together he and his attractive financial planner chart a new route for his life: an escape route.

The ad has intrigued me, and not only as a break from the bran flakes. It comes on the heels of an ad last year by a brokerage house that featured a cinema verite chat between well-heeled and burned-out executives. Only one had planned for what they all wished to buy: freedom.

I assume that businesses which deal with money for a living know what customers want to do with their greenbacks. In this case, the financial planners are not promoting Mercedes and mountain-top retreats. Their message about what many prosperous people in America want is simple. They want out.

Admittedly, this is hardly a sentiment limited to the working well-off. Nor is it entirely new. It's in the heart of many a lottery-ticket buyer. But when the American success story is an exit line, something is going on.

A few years ago, when the broadcaster Susan Stamberg was asked what she wanted to do next, she answered in one word, ''less.'' At the time I thought it was a wonderfully eccentric response. Now it is becoming the norm.

Blame it on the declining American work ethic if you like, a creeping laziness in the culture. That seems to be the favorite tack of the Japanese. Most of them, we are repeatedly told, work six days a week. Half of them don't take their allotted vacation. Thousands also drop dead at their desks, victims of karoshi, death from overwork.

But I attribute this longing for the door to an enervating combination of burnout and alienation, of overwork and underappreciation, a paralyzed economy and a gridlocked generation.

The case for exhaustion is made most persuasively in ''The Overworked American'' where Juliet Schor chronicles the rise of work hours in the past 20 years. The average employed person is now on the job an additional 163 hours or a full month. Indeed, our friendly pilot is an exception; his hours are regulated by law.

Overwork is due in large part to the economics of the workplace. Costs -- pensions and health insurance -- have made it cheaper to pay fewer workers overtime than to hire more workers. The growing gap between the poor and the rich is also a gap between those who are out of work and those who are overworked. Choose one of the above.

In part, overwork is due to the economy of the '80s. The long slide left Americans working more hours for the same lifestyle. The sense of getting somewhere was replaced by the sense of the treadmill.

But alienation is not just a matter of hours. In the last year, I have heard an extraordinary number of stories about the atmosphere and attitudes in the workplace. Stories about simple callous mistreatment. A decade of takeovers, mergers, downsizings and restructuring has had a very personal cost. It's turned legions of blue- and white-collar workers into dislocated refugees, the boat people of economic upheaval. Neither they, nor the survivors and witnesses are likely to put their loyalty into a corporation that deals with people as interchangeable digits.

At the same time that the economy has gone down, the demography has grown up. The baby-boom generation has met the mid-life crisis. Some are frustrated trying to balance overwork and family. Others at 40 see the slots at the top occupied by 45-year-olds. Where do you go when you can't go up? Out?

The pilot of our commercial plotline isn't yearning to lie on a beach. He wants to buy his own plane and fly people from one beach to another. In the fantasy department this is an aviator's equivalent to owning a country inn.

But the alienation of even those who are making it in America is quite real. It's not their work ethic that's gone awry. It's the work, the overwork, the lack of respect and the deteriorating relationship between worker and workplace. Until we deal with the people problem, this languishing economy can't fly. It can't even get off the ground.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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