September 2, 2002, Monday


Why Americans Should Rest

By Juliet Schor ( Op-Ed ) 915 words

BOSTON -- In the last decade an annual Labor Day ritual has emerged: bemoaning the national workload. The story has a thousand angles. The United States surpasses workaholic Japan in average hours. Dot-commers go 24/7. The family dinner has disappeared. The working poor are holding three and four jobs just to make ends meet. Neither the renewed commitment to family and community after Sept. 11 nor the presence of a committed leisure enthusiast in the White House seems to have had an impact. Worker overload has felt like an intransigent problem.

But this year might be different. More free time might just be the silver lining in the clouds of a depressed economy, corporate scandals and the hangover from the 1990's consumer binge.

The story of the overworked American (my book of that title was published a decade ago) has legs largely because working hours have risen for three decades. According to estimates from the Economic Policy Institute, between 1973 and 1998 average annual hours increased from 1,720 to 1,898. Recognition of the problem became widespread, as armies of ''work-family consultants'' counseled corporations on how to achieve ''balance.'' Most large companies put flexible work options on the books. The academic literature mushroomed. But these changes hardly made a dent.

Why has overwork been so persistent? One reason is that it is generally more profitable for firms to employ a small work force for long hours. The benefits costs are lower, employers can be more selective about whom they hire, and hours are a simple (if inaccurate) proxy for commitment. Employees who dislike the long hours have typically had to change jobs, or even occupations, to gain free time.

During the 1990's, robust consumer demand intensified these incentives. The boom also created great opportunity for individuals, which spurred work effort. While workers made significant gains in employment and income, they paid with their time. Indeed, by the end of the decade, it had begun to feel like Industrial Revolution redux, with a massive outpouring of work effort. Overtime hours, already at record highs, rose further. By the end of the decade, married couples with children logged an additional 151 hours of work annually.

And despite their strengthening labor-market position, employees failed to gain legal rights to vacation time -- in sharp contrast to Europeans. While my book caused a controversy over whether working hours had in fact increased, by the mid-1990's even the time-diary data wielded by my critics had begun to register increases in work time. The first Industrial Revolution paradox -- labor-saving technologies resulting in more, rather than less work -- was repeating itself.

These developments created a blowback effect. Rising hours led to rising incomes, which in turn raised the consumer norms that households adhere to. Prosperity turned more luxuries into necessities and raised aspirations: for consumer electronics, larger homes, travel, larger vehicles.

But because the gains in income and wealth went disproportionately to upper-income households, most families could only realize higher spending norms by putting in additional hours and taking on debt. By 1997, the National Survey of the Changing Workforce found that nearly two-thirds of employees were on the job more than they wanted to be.

Much of this has changed during the last year. Many firms are facing stagnant or declining demand, lower earnings and pressure to cut back on labor. On the household side, there is a new rationale for restraint in consumption. Personal bankruptcies are soaring again, trillions of dollars in wealth have vanished in a falling market and economic opportunity is harder to find. These developments make it an ideal moment to reduce hours broadly rather than eliminate jobs.

We've heard a lot in the last year from national leaders about the need for sacrifice and community. Surely allocating work more equitably should be part of any change. A creative policy might turn these worthy sentiments into reality. Employees on reduced schedules could be authorized to collect partial unemployment insurance; Congress could give tax breaks to firms that enact work redistribution.

A year ago, such proposals might have been dismissed as unrealistic. But the financial scandals of recent months have created an opening for a more comprehensive questioning of corporate behavior. As long as we're scrutinizing the relationship between companies and their shareholders and pensioners, how about looking at the inflexible work norms imposed on workers?

During the last six months, a national ''Take Back Your Time Day'' movement has gained momentum, urging Americans to take the day off on Oct. 24, 2003. The date, coming nine weeks before the end of the year, symbolizes the additional nine weeks Americans work in comparison to Continental Western Europeans.

In the end, even more than work schedules, incomes and employment are at stake: our choices affect the rest of the world. For the last half century, America's tendency has been to consume more, rather than work less. This propensity to work is central to why the United States is among the world's wealthiest nations as well as the unrivaled leader in resource depletion, carbon-dioxide emissions and environmental impact. By next Labor Day, perhaps, the message will be that we're slowing down, sharing the work and consuming a little less.


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company