They work hard for their money, but at what price?

July 05, 1995|By Judith H. Dobrzynski | Judith H. Dobrzynski,New York Times News Service

For all its allure, the American Dream has always come with strings attached. The catch is that hard work and long hours on the job are part and parcel of getting ahead and making money. Family life often pays the price, of course -- a bargain that makes many Americans queasy.

Bob Israel, co-owner of a motion-picture ad agency in Los Angeles, knows the feeling well.

"At some point during the day, I look at my watch, and I'm faced with, 'Do I go home now and spend a little more time with my kids before they go to bed, or do I complete the work that I'm staring at?' " Mr. Israel said. "It really is a daily struggle. It sometimes causes conflict, and certainly presents conflict in my heart."

Still, Mr. Israel usually stays at his desk, in the belief that long hours are necessary to take home a fatter paycheck.

Now along comes a study from the Wharton School that claws at his reasoning -- and that of everyone else who buys into conventional wisdom on the work-family conflict. It found that people who placed high importance on finding the right spouse and creating a good family life actually ended up earning more money than those who were willing to sacrifice home life for their careers.

"I'm sorry to hear that, because I didn't go home early," Mr. Israel said. "I'm not going to let my wife read this article."

A healthy family life, of course, does not always depend on the amount of time people spend at home instead of the office. But Wharton's conclusion is enough to make many people who work long hours wonder about their choice. Asked about the study, people around the country spoke emotionally about the choices they have made to juggle their lives at work and outside the office.

To some, the study's conclusions sounded a lot like voodoo socioeconomics. They argued that their jobs wouldn't let them cut back. Others asserted that they worked hard to satisfy themselves, not for material gain, and wouldn't change a thing.

Still others confessed to strong workaholic tendencies, but insisted that they had found ways to cope, like slacking off on household chores or delaying marriage and family. Finally, a few said they had learned the Wharton study's lesson the hard way, with their own lives, and were changing their habits.

Many Americans are on a nonstop treadmill -- the rat race is real, it dictates their schedules.

Scott A. Smith described the evenings and weekends he worked as a salesman for the New York Life Insurance Co. a few years back and complained, "If you don't put in those hours, you'll get eaten alive." Now with a Denver financial planning firm, he feels guilty if he leaves at 6 p.m. "We joke around here that we work half days -- 12 hours," said Mr. Smith, 36, who is raising two small children with his wife, a magazine executive.

Peter Rosenthal, the senior executive vice president at Rubenstein Associates, a New York public relations firm, said the Wharton study might be valid in some industries, but not others.

"It's a nonstarter in service businesses like law and investment banking -- or public relations," he said. "I don't know anybody who is really successful that gained their success in 40-hour workweeks."

Mr. Rosenthal typically puts in 70-hour weeks, away from his working wife and their 2-year-old son.

Personal expectations

Corporate demands are one thing; personal expectations weigh even more heavily on some people. Plenty of folks seem motivated to work long and hard primarily because they have personalized the American work ethic.

"What drives me is what's next. As soon as something's completed, I like to see what the next opportunity is," said Catherine A. Lehmann. At 33, this senior corporate relations manager for Allstate Insurance in Northbrook, Ill., averages 12- to 14-hour workdays.

She is childless and married to a securities lawyer who works similar hours. Ms. Lehmann said: "Probably, I wouldn't be as successful if I didn't work as hard. I do think there's a trade-off." But, she added, "I rarely come in on the weekend -- so that's the balance for me."

"I'm a little surprised by the outcome of the study," said Michael J. Durham, 44, an airline industry executive in Fort Worth. "In general, corporate America is inordinately demanding of people who wish to rise high up in the hierarchy of large public companies."

As he tells it, Mr. Durham wanted both a high-powered career and a family life. So he devised a strategy to cope: get to the office early but get home before it is too late, even if that means doing work there.

Partly because his wife does not work outside the home, Mr. Durham characterized his family life as a good one that provided many psychic rewards. "There are many long days at the office that you're supported only by the thought of having your kids run and smash into you when you walk into the house," he said. "You get out of the car and hear, 'Daddy, Daddy, you're home.' "

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