A Sobering Look At Work-Life Balance In The U.S.

Ostensibly about gender roles and the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, this NYT essay is, at its core, an indictment of boomer leadership, political institutions and corporations in 21st century America.

During the 1920s, hours worked (for pay) in the U.S. had “stabilized at about 49 hours a week.”

]The “new economic gospel of consumption”] proclaimed that new consumption could keep the economy eternally dynamic. Spokesmen for this new gospel opposed labor’s efforts and offered alternatives to increased leisure such as an improved standard of living, consumerism, and steady work. Those who supported the shorter hour cure for unemployment had a different view. They supported labor’s call for “progressive shortening of the hours of labor,” believing with labor that this would help to control unemployment and shape the direction of industry; limiting surpluses, encouraging the production of basic needs, and discouraging “luxuries.”

In 1933, 80 years ago, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would have limited the work week to 30 hours. The rationale: rampant unemployment. It took another five years before Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a national 40 hour work week.

What does the work week look like in the U.S. today?

According to Stephanie Coontz in the NYT essay:

Today, almost 40 percent of men in professional jobs work 50 or more hours a week, as do almost a quarter of men in middle-income occupations… As of 2000, the average dual-earner couple worked a combined 82 hours a week, while almost 15 percent of married couples had a joint workweek of 100 hours or more.

glasses on paperThe Fed, hardly a bastion of liberal research, reported in 2004 (pdf) that we worked “50 percent more than do the Germans, French, and Italians.” (Only economists believe that marginal tax rates account for this difference. Do you know anyone who says to herself, “If I work one more hour this week, I’ll get to take home only (Y-x)% of it instead of Y% of it?” Especially since most people working more than 40 hours a week are not paid by the hour nor have agency when it comes to how many hours they work!)

With only anecdotal evidence to support this claim, I’d argue that the change in number of hours worked reflects

  1. The reduced percentage of jobs in the U.S. economy that are union labor,
  2. The increased percentage of jobs that are knowledge work contrasted with hourly (punch-the-clock) labor and
  3. Relatively fewer hours of paid leave (vacation, sick, parental, family) especially when compared with other industrialized nations.

Somewhere in here we have to include the demand for usury-like profit margins — a transition that happened in the ’80s and ’90s — as a factor as well.

In other words, the argument put forth at the turn of the last century – that the economy depends on consumption – has been fully integrated into our collective psyche. Just look at the conspicuous consumption depicted in ads and in celebrity endorsements. Look at what graces the pages of fashion magazines — that certainly ties back to the essay that prompted this post.

The issues raised in this essay should be an important part of the debate on quality of life in America. Don’t let the word “gender” in the headline keep you from reading it.

Photo: Flickr CC.

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31 Comments

  1. My household easily falls into the category of putting in over 100 hours/week between two spouses. I dream of 40-hour work weeks — even this short week (w President’s Day off) will almost certainly top that. I think in our case it is driven by ambition and not necessarily consumption. There just don’t seem to be many jobs out there with growth potential, with leadership opportunities, and with full professional engagement in our fields, that also only require a 40-hour work week. The consumption is more of a happy after-effect, I suppose.

  2. I also want to put out there that most retirement calculators indicate that my husband I will need along the lines of $15M in assets to retire comfortably by the time I’m 65 — and that presumes that Medicare still exists and that my husband (5 years older) works until *I* am 65. Many of us young’uns are looking at that number and doing the math. Even those of us who make an amazingly large amount of money are seeing the writing on the wall and deciding not to consume, but to drive the beater cars and clip coupons and go for the craigslisted TV and stash away the pennies.

  3. A 40 hour work week is something I can only dream of. Days/nights/weekends/holidays are all open to work when you’re self employed.

    I certainly would like more time off but such is life. Though to paraphrase a great scene in the West Wing, if I have to work this much I sure would appreciate not being called names while I do it

  4. As an engineer I have always been salaried. When I first entered the workforce over 40 years ago that meant a 40 hour week with an occasional exception. Then came the downsizing – less people but not any less things that needed to be done. When I retired a 60 hour week was not uncommon. It impacted my health and was a factor in the failure of my marriage.

  5. Been there, done that — the constant 60+ hour work week.Don’t know what the solution would be.

  6. As hard as we are all working, perhaps we need to consider new modeling relative to retirement.

    We are working harder and living longer. The longer part is about to get waaaay longer. I am talking 20-30 years longer. I don’t see ‘retirement’ as a goal. I see it as something I may be forced to do by my health or catastrophe.

    Consider, things are happening in medicine that will extend life expectancy to near 120 years within a decade or two. Our retirement and safety net models need to be reconsidered. People in their 30s and 40s should not be planning for retirement at 65. I am close to 60 and it is not even a consideration. Number one because I want to work. Number two because I need to work. No safety net is going to keep me funded for forty years; nor should it be asked to.

  7. KP, yep and wait till that longer life bumps into the scarcity of bucks from Medicaid/Medicare, it will be something out of Huxley or your favorite science fiction writer.

  8. @KP
    I think we are going to see the opposite is true. We are less healthy and we won’t be able to afford those things that could extend our lives. The lifespan is going to become shorter not longer. The most recent generation will be the first generation that dose not live longer than their parents.

  9. Kathy, thanks for that fine article and the reference to the Coontz essay. Both women and men should support your point of view. It is not a feminists issue. It is a family issue.

  10. Ron, I am sorry you feel that way.

    “We are less healthy”

    Then help me change it. Person by person. Use your influence. If you don’t know how then let somebody like me support you to that end.

    “we won’t be able to afford those things that could extend our lives.”

    I don’t think it will be anymore expensive that what we already pay for.

    Best to you and yours.

  11. BTW, that’s what I do; and if things are as unhealthy as you say, that means there are lots of teaching and/or self employment opportunities to help alter the landscape. Retirement is over rated. Especially for men and women of our generation. Attitude and action. I will be writing more about what each of us can do. Do not go quietly :)

  12. Many manual labor jobs also tend to the 60 hour week. Those in manual labor jobs cannot work past 65 and also die younger than white collar labor…

  13. KP, Honestly, if I have to work for 50 or 60 more years, I truly don’t know what it is that I’m working for. I don’t hate my job — I actually like it, as far as jobs go. It’s just that there’s almost nothing I wouldn’t rather be doing. It’s an interesting question: if I knew for certain that I’d have to work until I was, say, 85, would I continue to do what I’m doing, or at least doing it as vigorously and to such detrement to everything else in my life? And if the answer is “no friggin way”, does that mean I’m doing the wrong thing now? Rhetorical question, of course, but worth thinking about.

    One thing to consider in regards to your analysis: people have a much, much greater chance of making it to 90 given that they make it to 50 than they did in 1950. However, after a person makes it to 60, the chances of developing dimensia or other mental disorders (not even mentioning physical issues) doubles every 5 years thereafter, reaching roughly 25% by the age of 85. Even if the jobs are there to support a workforce of people in their 70s and 80s (in addition to all the younger people), I don’t know that it’s a great idea to have a societal expectation that all folks save the extraordinarily wealthy must be working at that age. I understand something’s gotta give in one way or another, but I just don’t see how people working through their 80s is a viable system.

  14. I think our national priorities with regard to work and conspicuous consumption are totally messed up. Seems like we would have realized this by now but societal sensibilities have been getting duller for a long time now. I look forward to getting out of the rat race (this year I hope) and having time for family and other worthwhile pursuits.

  15. Kathy — By the way, I think the “gender” part of the article is actually pretty astute. And kind of terrifying. As an overworked professional woman with an overworked professional husband, just on the cusp of trying to figure out how we’re going to manage the whole “having kids” adventure, I’m in a place where exactly the scenarios described loom very large. I can absolutely see thing playing out exactly as described — couple with egalitarian values realizes there aren’t many options, turning them into a less-funny version of Lucy and Ricky. Anyway, thanks for sharing the article.

  16. Roro80 “KP, Honestly, if I have to work for 50 or 60 more years, I truly don’t know what it is that I’m working for. I don’t hate my job — I actually like it, as far as jobs go. It’s just that there’s almost nothing I wouldn’t rather be doing.”

    Work is what human beings do. That alone, gives us meaning, pride and offers some bits of self-reliance. Americans have an incredible work ethic. Our friends and families and acquaintances that are unemployed are missing out on the benefits you are harvesting at work (not just money). This idea is not subtle, and is important. In most cases, work means you live longer and are happier.

    “It’s an interesting question: if I knew for certain that I’d have to work until I was, say, 85, would I continue to do what I’m doing, or at least doing it as vigorously and to such detrement to everything else in my life? And if the answer is “no friggin way”, does that mean I’m doing the wrong thing now? Rhetorical question, of course, but worth thinking about.”

    Great question! Let’s assume you are doing the right thing right now. How could you transition over time, or take an avocation and make it a vocation? How can you leverage your current skills with something that excites you and can be shared with others? What idea makes you smile? You can take that idea and develop it. The internet makes you global. What makes you happy? Whatever it is, there are thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people who feel the same way.

    “I don’t know that it’s a great idea to have a societal expectation that all folks save the extraordinarily wealthy must be working at that age.”

    Recall, my comments are driven by the knowledge that our health and longevity are rising (or the opportunity is there if we avail ourselves of it) and that we are going to remain part of the workforce for much longer because we can.

    New problems that come with longer life, like dementia, will be treated. By the way, what do expect to be doing if you are not wealthy and are retired? Work is not an expectation; it is what we do and it creates happiness.

    Ask anyone who is unable to work if they would work if they could.

    And Zephyr, don’t assume your family needs more time with you. They may be busy doing life :)

  17. As a salaried engineer working in a highly technical field a 50 hour work week would be a luxury. In the last year my typical work week went from 55 hours to 65, and will soon go to 70 hours now that the company when through another “cost savings” measure that increased the number of managers and sales & marketing people but cut the number of technical people. In my department we took a 40% cut in personnel (lost 9 people) but picked up 6 product lines (a 50% increase) we need to support. As a result of this and the need to interface with our engineering teams in China & India it is strongly suggested that we work 11 hours M-Sat, and start attending conference calls starting at 6 PM Sunday night. That’s in addition to the Sunday morning round-table meeting senior staff like myself are expected to attend that starts at 7:30 AM and typically runs until noon.

    The running joke has been that we’ll need to start taking vacation to get a Saturday off, but a draft memo that accidently got sent around outlined a new policy that vacation days can now be taken on Saturdays and Sundays if you are schedule to work those days. I hope it is a joke but my sources tell me it isn’t, and that as an exempt employee I’m not affected by it as I cannot be scheduled to work beyond an 8 hour day 5 days a week. But if I don’t work the “suggested” hours we are subject to immediate reprimands and placed on “performance improvement plans” that are a really just a warning to either start working the hours or be fired for “poor performance.” Talking to several of my friends at other companies they are seeing the same thing happen. Thus is life in corporate America today.

  18. And Zephyr, don’t assume your family needs more time with you. They may be busy doing life

    Yes, they are busy indeed (except my parents who are retired – and have earned it times over) but we are one of those families who actually enjoy each others company! Btw, all the meaning and pride which comes from the work ethic and self reliance is well and good, but if it doesn’t translate into a smarter and more sustainable society then all those benefits end up being transitory and self indulgent – or worse.

  19. just a .02… Ive been self-employed for four decades. The weeks are as long as they were at the beginning. 17 hour days were not unusual for decades. But just 7 months ago, I had to take stock. So little sleep, doing night shifts pulling back to sleep at 8,9,10 am in the morning, sleeping during the day took a toll, I think. I was way past ‘retirement age’ … survived five recessions and still working like a dog, but on a cane, on a couple meddies, still trucking tho, determined to keep doing what I think I am called to, and torpedos be damned, full steam ahead and go down fighting. That was my attitude; crippledness, decline, is inevitable… “everything straight going crooked, everything crooked going straight” is how I wrote it in my journal. But then something happened

    I’ve an article I’m working on about what happened next…

    What KP says, I believe is absolutely so. I would not have believed one my age [and my other family members who are older than me and far younger than me] could turn declines of many kinds, around. I dont want to crow and perhaps nix something, but I have a heck of a story to tell about recovery of health and strength in return for consistently working my a.. off in an entirely different way. Not easy, not even close. But worth it. So worth it. This from the girl whose idea of exertion was reading a dense book. Whose idea of ‘being healthy’ was not to smoke, drink alcohol or eat sugars in their millions of forms. Good starts, but… I had so much MORE to learn. Still learning. Want to learn. And act.

  20. Reading the comments in this thread it seems that there is a general acceptance of the trend toward longer hours / later retirement. Thank goodness the Republican Party is looking out for you and your vision of the future… And thank god I’m a Democrat AND retired.

    With the GOP doing its best to get rid of pesky unions, OSHA requirements, and other detriments to higher corporate profits you folks will probably see your vision of working 80 or 90 hours a week… until you’re 85 (or dead) and if they do it right you’ll be working in a ‘right to work’ State and make less than Federal minimum wage. Maybe they can even weasel their way around the child labor laws so your kids can help you buy hamburger in a plastic tube at Wal-Mart… When it’s on sale!

    It seems the concept that Middle America could earn enough thought hard work and reasonable hours to raise a family is outdated… Such a hokey idea.

  21. Great comments, zephyr. I completely agree. It sounds like we have similar family relationships. Best.

  22. Comment on the topic of the post, not each other.

    thanks

    archangel/ dr.e

  23. Reading the comments in this thread I don’t see an acceptance of longer weekly hours. However, I understand the medical reality that we are looking at significantly longer life spans. Part of the quality of life (health and financial) beyond age 65 will be the ability to continue to work, learn and maintain a positive attitude. We might lateral to different jobs using similar skill sets with less stress and lower volume; perhaps part time. Maybe learn new skill sets and venture into things we hadn’t considered before. Healthy people don’t turn off work ethic at age 65.

  24. “I’ve an article I’m working on about what happened next.”

    I look forward to that article!

  25. Steve, I’ve often made reference here to the new feudal system (not really new) which near as I can tell has been gaining steam. The trade-off in accepting a philosophy of all work and no play (at least among the hard working poor and the middle classes) usually means less time and energy for improving minds, souls and relationships. If at the end of a hard day or night all one wants to do is pop and beer and land on the couch then that life has been seriously downgraded in more ways than just economically. Society is already dumb enough and self-indugent enough for my taste, we certainly don’t need more trending in that direction.

    Also: Very much looking forward to your article Dr E.

    And: Thanks KP.

  26. STinMn and others, I admire your ability to endure the long work hours, and wish you fewer of them for the rest of your day if you so desire. If on the other hand you really enjoy what you are doing, then more power to you, cause then it ain’t so much work as it is a pursuit of a goal perhaps.

  27. KP, that all sounds nice, and I do believe it’s true for you, and for Dr E, because you say it is. But I must respectfully disagree that it’s necessarily true for everyone, and I know for certain it’s not true for me. And again — I most emphatically do not hate my job. Honestly, it might make me happy if I didn’t have to wake up at 5 am to get to work, and if I could do it for 20-30 hours per week instead of 60+ hours per week. But what actually makes me happy is everything else in my life, and all the things I would be doing if I didn’t spend an hour and a half in my car, followed by 10-12 hours at work, followed by another hour and a half in my car. Every day. I’m a mechanical engineer, and I am perfectly suited to that profession — gadgets, cutting-edge technology, using my brain every day. I could say I’d rather be a singer in a band, which might be true, but that lifestyle wouldn’t work with my personality, and it’s a bit late for that now anyway.

    You ask this question as if it were rhetorical, or unanswerable, or as if the answer were “work”:

    what do expect to be doing if you are not wealthy and are retired?

    You know what my parents are doing *right now*? They are in New Orleans, eating crawfish, on their way to Florida, followed by a week in Puerto Rico, followed by the car trip back through the South to Southern California. Last fall they took a 3 week bike trip, biking from B&B to B&B, from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, and then they hung out in DC for a few days. Last spring they went to Portugal and Spain for 6 weeks. This summer they will car camp for 7 weeks on the west coast. They were public school teachers. They are not “wealthy” by any means – they live quite modestly, and travel quite modestly as well. But they saved and saved and pinched pennies their entire lives, working hard at jobs that came with retirement funds.

    I am more educated than my parents. I work at a job which pays so, so much more than a teacher’s salary. I am a loyal and hard worker, and have always done everything “right”, just like my folks. I save like crazy — to the point where I’m often called cheap, which might be fair. But save a miraculous IPO by my husband’s company, I don’t see a future in which I have the sort of life at 65 that my parents do, and I’m not now living a life which is as full as theirs was when they were my age. I don’t have time for tap dance classes or painting or sports or even a daily run with my dog. So no, I’m not going to get all excited about the idea of working until I’m 80.

  28. Dr E — I can’t wait to read the rest of your story!

  29. KP — Reading back that comment, it looks more harsh (and maybe condescending) than I meant it to be. And depressing. So apologies if it came off poorly. My intention was just to show that while living to work is one option — nice work if you can get it, as they say — working to live is better suited to some people, and I am one of those people. For those of us whose joy comes from a wide variety of activities that would be made worse by trying to make a living off of them (example: love walking my dog, but would HATE being a dog walker for a living), basing one’s entire life around one’s source of income is gigantic bummer.

  30. And here I thought we were all just a fat lazy stupid nation of “takers”.

  31. roro80, no worries at all. Thanks for your feedback. It reminds me that we have common ground. My efforts to encourage were just that. Not ideological rhetoric. I appreciate your comments.

    Keep On Truckin’ …

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