DO YOU REALLY WORK MORE?
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Americans are working more than ever before--at least that's what they tell anyone who will listen. Complaints about longer work hours started dominating lunchroom tables and filtering into the business press in the go-go 1980s. Since then, economic researchers such as Harvard's Juliet Schor (in her 1991 book, The Overworked American) have argued that Americans today work harder than their parents did, and endless anecdotes in newspapers and magazines confirmed the fact that we're all working more. In March, USA Today's Weekend magazine featured a cover story describing America as a nation of Lucy Ricardos at the candy factory--frantic, overworked, and exhausted.
The only problem with that image is that the best studies that try to measure people's time use indicate that Americans, in fact, are actually spending less time on the job. Sociologists who have asked people to keep detailed diaries of their daily activities find that on average, American workers put in about 37-hour workweeks these days, about six fewer hours than in the 1960s. What's been working overtime, these sociologists say, is people's imaginations. In the 1960s workers who were asked to estimate how many hours they worked each week guessed about right. But these days full-time workers overstate by about four hours a week. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who claim to work the longest hours are also the biggest blowhards. People who say they put in about 70 hours of work a week can document, on average, only about 53. "There's a lot of whininess," says Frank Stafford, a University of Michigan economist who studies time diaries.
The buzz about overwork arises from a variety of causes--some legitimate and some merely psychological--the sociologists say. First, some people really are putting in more hours. The diaries indicate that work time, like income, isn't distributed equally these days. Certain groups--such as women in their 30s and 40s--are working longer. But that's been balanced by a drop in work hours for other groups, such as people in their late 50s and early 60s.
Demographics can also explain much of the complaining. Baby-boomers, those 78 million articulate and media-savvy 32- to 50-year-olds, are correct when they say they are working longer hours and have less free time than they used to. But that's because they have reached a point in their lives when people have always tended to work longer hours. But today's fortysomething is still working fewer hours than his counterpart did at the same life stage 30 years ago, says University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson, who is preparing a report on an as-yet-unpublished study of 10,000 diaries gathered last year. In fact, Americans today have an average of 40 hours of leisure a week--five hours more than their counterparts in the 1960s.
Some people are feeling overworked because they have more roles to play. As women have changed their aprons for business suits, for example, young parents have seen their leisure time eaten up by home duties. "It seems like you are putting more time in because you have more to do in your off hours," Robinson explains.
In addition, work may seem longer now because its pace and anxiety level has intensified. The average worker today produces about 30% more goods or services than he or she did a generation ago. But the rewards don't seem to have kept pace with the pressures. Many Americans have less take-home pay, less job security, and face dimmer prospects than they did in previous decades.
The complaints about long workweeks are at least correct in the long, historical sense. Although today's workers may not be putting in the brutal 60-hour-plus workweeks common early in the Industrial Age, they're still working among the longest workweeks in human history. In the medieval era, for example, serfs worked long days in the fields, but also had more than 100 holidays a year.
REPORTER ASSOCIATE Lenore Schiff