Americans: Overworked, Overstressed

ByDean Schabner

May -- Recent studies have painted a grim picture of the American working world: Longer days, less vacation time, and later retirement, and — and that was all during the good years of the 1990s.

The last few months have done nothing to ease those conditions, adding job insecurity to the mix as an increasing number of companies lay off workers to "downsize" in the slumping economy.

Those lucky enough to still have a job can expect to be asked to do more, to make up for the "streamlined" workforce.

Not only are Americans working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept, but now they are also working longer than anyone else in the industrialized world. And while workers in other countries have been seeing their hours cut back by legislation focused on preventing work from infringing on private life, Americans have been going in the other direction.

A trio of recent books, The White-Collar Sweatshop by Jill Andresky Fraser, The Overworked American by Juliet Schor, and The Working Life by Joanne B. Ciulla, have been embraced by a public that apparently feels harassed by the pressures of the workplace.

Road rage, workplace shootings, the rising number of children placed in day care and the increasing demand on schools to provide after-school activities to occupy children whose parents are too busy have all been pointed to as evidence that Americans are overstressed and overworked.

Bureau of Labor statistics released last year confirmed what Fraser had been hearing in four years of interviews with white-collar workers. In 1999, more than 25 million Americans - 20.5 percent of the total workforce - reported that they worked at least 49 hours a week, and 11 million of those said they worked more than 59 hours a week.

Sweat Under the White Collar

Indications are that the bulk of those overworked people were white collar workers, who do not punch a clock and whose hours therefore are the most difficult to track.

Schor's 1997 book, which became a bestseller, stated that in 1990 Americans worked an average of nearly one month more per year than they had in 1970. Statistics indicate that the trend she described hasn't been reversed in the last decade.

Ciulla's book is perhaps a less pessimistic — and broader — look at Americans' relationship to the workplace, but she shares Schor's view that, more than ever before, work dominates people's lives in this country.

Not everyone has agreed with the conclusions the three authors drew from studying the various statistical surveys of Americans at work, from Fortune magazine polls for Fortune 500 CEOs, to International Labor Organization studies of workers around the world, and from talking to American workers themselves.

The dissenters point to evidence that workers consistently overestimate the amount of time they spend on the job, and thus discount studies based on information from workers themselves. Instead, they look at surveys based on worker hours as reported by employers, though that leaves overtime hours worked by salaried employees unaccounted for.

The other evidence often pointed to that people are not really working as much as they say is the increasing number of part-time jobs. How can people be working more if more people are not working full-time?

But the anecdotal evidence presented by Fraser, Schor and Ciulla - and met by millions of people everyday - is that Americans feel they are working more than ever.

Dwindling Homelife

Experts who accept some of the arguments of both sides often focus less on individuals' hours worked, instead looking at household hours on the job.

In Overworked and Underemployed, a study in The American Prospect that looks at the issue, Barry Bluestone and Stephen Rose argue that to really understand the situation that Americans face, you need to look beyond individuals and beyond the numbers.

The overall figures for how many hours a week the average American works have been held down by the increasing number of part-time service and retail jobs in the economy. But since many of the part-time jobs have been filled by the increasing number of women in the workforce, and many of these women had previously been housewives, there are fewer hours when anyone is taking care of household chores.

Instead of coming home to find the refrigerator and cupboards stocked, dinner ready, the table set, the clothes washed, the house clean and the children entertained, men are coming home and finding they have to chip in, because their wives aren't "the little woman," anymore. They are now sharing duties as breadwinner, which means men have to share household chores.

If men in particular aren't spending quite as many more hours at work as they think they are, the fact that they aren't allowed as much leisure time once they're off work might account for the apparent illusion.

Authors like Fraser, Schor and Ciullo, though, argue that there is no illusion, and the case made by the harried Americans who fill their books — and fill commuter trains and highways — is hard to discount.

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