Beating the Clock Beating the Clock

December 1, 1999

Work. ten hours a day, six days a week, only taking off New Year's, Good Friday, the Fourth of July, and Christmas. The workaholic life of someone caught in today's rat race? No. This was the life of the average American manufacturing worker in the 1880s. As the productivity of American workers has risen, incomes have grown and the workweek has become shorter. In fact, the number of hours that the typical person spent on the job had decreased so much since the 1880s that, by 1964, Life magazine declared the beginning of a new "Age of Leisure.”

But such an era did not materialize. Or, if it did, it certainly doesn't feel like it. People like Leora Wechsler feel like they are on a treadmill without a minute to catch their breath and enjoy. "I think about the time issue all the time,” says the 30-year-old Suffolk County assistant district attorney. Family is crammed into weekends and short evening hours, and is interspersed with all the other errands that need to get done. Sleep and hobbies have gone by the wayside.

She is not alone. According to University of Maryland Professor John Robinson, about one-third of working-age Americans polled report "always feeling rushed.” These feelings are particularly acute among those with higher levels of education and income, as well as among people in family-forming stages of life. "One of the most telling features from our recent surveys is that people are bothered more by lack of time than lack of money,” he says.

If anything, the number of working-age Americans who have any inclination to think about the problems of excess leisure seems to have been decreasing since Life magazine published that article.


The common wisdom - frequently conveyed in the media - is that everyone is working longer and harder. But the data tell a slightly different story. Our best measure says that, for men, the average workweek has remained stable since the 1970s, around 42 hours, while for women it has risen from 34 to 36 hours, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics.

Within these relatively stable averages, however, more-educated workers have tended to increase their work hours, as the returns to education have grown, while less-educated workers have tended to reduce them. So, between the mid 1970s and the early 1990s, the work hours of more-educated women rose much faster than those of less-educated women; and less-educated men actually saw their work hours fall, according to Stanford economics professor John Pencavel.

But the emphasis on individual hours hides the most telling fact Families are spending more total hours on market work than ever before. Married couples, for instance, are putting in nine additional hours of work per week between them, as compared to 1974. This rise is due primarily to the dramatic increase in the number of women working for pay. Dual-earner families grew from being 45 percent of all married couple families in 1974 to two-thirds today (see the table). In addition, the hours worked by the average dual-earner couple also increased.

Couples with children have seen their hours of work increase sharply, as increases in labor market participation have been greater for women with children than for childless women. The labor force participation rate of married women with children under the age of three rose from 21 to 60 percent between 1966 and 1994. And, apart from market work, children and other dependents - as families increasingly have to care for elderly parents and relatives - are critical in generating time pressure, given the amount of attention and energy they require, as well as the additional financial burden they imply.

"Americans feel more pressed for time because there is no longer someone at home full-time to pick up the slack,” says Jerry Jacobs, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has been studying who the "overworked” Americans are.

Among dual-earner couples, the time crunch is particularly acute for the more educated, says Jacobs. More educated people tend to marry each other, and this has become more pronounced over the past two decades. Since educated workers have also tended to increase their weekly work hours, the difference in joint husband and wife work hours between more and less educated couples has grown. If one looks at couples sorted by the educational attainment of the wives, for instance, the most educated couples worked 3.4 more hours on average than less-educated couples in 1970. This difference grew to 6.1 hours in 1997, according to Jacobs.

Single-parent families also face significantly increased time pressure. Aside from having to balance jobs and child care with far fewer resources than their married couple counterparts, single-parent families were working about six additional hours per week in 1998. Moreover, this group grew significantly, from being 15 percent of all families with children under 18 in 1974 to 27 percent by 1998.

Where there used to be two jobs, one paid and one unpaid, there are now three jobs distributed between the same two adults. "There's too much work, even if it were evenly split,” says Kathleen Christensen, director of The Family and the Workplace program at the Sloan Foundation. "We are in the midst of some profound social changes and we have not sorted them out,” she says.


As spouses and parents have increased their time on the job, family life has become more harried and scheduled. Dual-earner families have been adapting to women's increased market work by replacing what were traditionally their responsibilities with market-provided services. They have also adjusted their standards to meet their lifestyles.

In the time crunch, household cleaning is the first thing that gives. Between 1965 and 1995, the time women spent on housework almost halved - dropping from 27 to 15.6 hours a week, according to Robinson. Although men lent a helping hand, increasing their cleaning time from 4.6 to 9.5 hours per week, it didn't quite close the gap. And there's some evidence (admittedly not definitive) that standards may differ with education According to a recent Soap and Detergent Association survey cited in American Demographics, more educated people were less likely to think that dusting was important.

Families that can afford them resort to market-provided services. Over the past decade, for instance, the number of cleaners and servants hired by households has grown by 16 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (This may underestimate the number as it does not include illegal immigrants hired in such occupations.) And that is just one example The list goes from child care providers through restaurants, precooked meals, and gardeners.

To some extent, new technology can also help. Manufacturers of cleaning products have been responding by developing easier-to-use, faster products, with stronger scents (while houses may not be squeaky clean, they can at least smell as if they are). An array of beepers, cellular phones, faxes, laptop computers, and the Internet makes the location of work less rigid and facilitates shopping, banking, and other transactions.

But technology is also speeding up the tempo of our daily routine, making it possible to squeeze more activities into our day and raising our expectations of what we can accomplish. As technology allows people to work practically any place any time, it can also make them feel like they are working everywhere all the time. "I do voice mail whenever I can at home when I'm cooking, when I'm folding laundry…” says Nicole Gardner, a VP at Mercer Management Consulting. This can be tough on families. "My husband once unplugged the phone from the wall, and I have a friend who once was caught by her husband doing voice mail in the bathroom while running the shower so that her husband would not hear her,” she says.

Lower-income parents can't attempt to reduce their stress with cleaning help, gardeners, and people to do their errands; they have to do things themselves. As a result, they are more likely to depend on other family members for help. Or they may suffer alternating shifts in order to take care of the children.

For all families, there is a limit to what can be outsourced or speeded up by technology. Child care requires major investments of time and money, and parenting has no perfect substitute available in the market. Managing child care becomes a complex and stressful juggling act, which involves balancing each parent's schedule together with the children's. Kids 12 and under are spending much more time in structured activities today than they were just 16 years ago, says Sandra Hofferth, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

The feeling of not giving enough time to their children is a major source of stress for many working parents who want to play an active role in shaping their children's lives. Many worry about the impact of their packed and harried schedules on their children. However, the long-term consequences are hard to determine at this point. Perhaps because families are having fewer children, Professor Robinson's and other studies seem to indicate that parents are spending as much one-on-one time with their children as they did 30 years ago.

At the same time, economist John Johnson from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that, all else being equal, increasing work hours for parents was linked to slightly higher probabilities of divorce and to greater likelihood of grade repetition for children. However, the effect was not very strong. Moreover, Johnson also found that increased earnings tend to mitigate the negative effects on children. But the degree of freedom parents have to choose between more work hours and higher earnings, or more time spent with the children, is limited by the range of job options available and by financial need.


In many cases, parents seek to reduce their time stress through increased flexibility at work or by reducing their hours. In 1997, about 25 million full-time wage and salary workers had flexible schedules that allowed them to vary the time they began or ended work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This represented over one-quarter of all workers, a very sharp increase from the 15 percent with flexible schedules in 1991.

But reducing hours is more difficult. Giving up the income is hard, especially for those with greater financial need. For people in managerial and professional occupations, greater responsibilities often make it practically impossible to reduce hours. Fixed salaries and no overtime premiums in these occupations also make it to an employer's advantage to entice longer weeks from workers.

Part-time work is generally available only to employees who have already proved themselves and are relatively well established within the company. When she started having her children - after working as a consultant for a couple of years - Gardner was able to make arrangements to work part-time and then to shift toward doing staff work (recruitment and human resources) rather than consulting. She feels that Mercer made an investment in her career and that she made an investment in the firm. Both are now reaping the results When her work requires it, she works full-time and arranges her life around that; when it becomes too much, she negotiates a different arrangement with the firm.

But not everyone has the opportunity to work out such an arrangement with his or her employer. Even for those who do, they may not be inclined to take it if it leads to the perception that they are less committed to work, reducing chances of promotions or making them more likely to be laid off. And gender differences persist. Women are still the most likely member of the couple to engage in part-time work.

Those who opt for fewer hours might find that the quality and content of work becomes less satisfying. Leslie Dangel was a researcher at a management consulting firm; and when her two children were born, she decided to reduce her time to 20 hours a week. Although her employer was generally supportive, she lost plum assignments simply because she wasn't around or couldn't put in the needed hours. "It was also very hard to see opportunities at work and say 'No,'” she says.

She now works to support herself after the marriage ended in divorce. "When I did jump back into the work force full-time, I was way behind my peers who had not left,” says Dangel, now a marketing manager at GTE Internetworking. "I'm still a title or two behind my peers, and significantly behind in income.”

If she had a chance to do it over again, Dangel says she would probably still make the same choice. "The kids had to come first. I just wish I hadn't had to pay for it,” she says.


Whether or not the burden of work families face can be reduced, and how this can be accomplished, depends critically on why it is that they are working so hard in the first place. In the 1890s, the most highly paid workers worked the fewest hours, about nine hours a day (for men), while the lowest-paid worked close to 11 hours a day, according to MIT economics professor Dora Costa. Those who had higher incomes could afford more leisure time, while those who earned less had to work longer to make ends meet. Today, it is the highest-paid workers - who tend also to be those with greater schooling - who are working the longer hours.

This relationship between increasing wages and rising workweeks has led some critics to accuse Americans of choosing to pursue unbridled materialism in the pressure to keep up with the Joneses. There might be some truth here. The size of the average American house, for instance, has steadily grown as families have expanded the size of their kitchens and rooms and the number of bathrooms they need to live comfortably. Yesterday's luxuries have become today's necessities.

Moreover, Americans today are more pressed for time not only because they need to work in order to buy all these bigger and better goods, but also because consuming them takes time. The vacation in Europe and the home entertainment center both require time to be enjoyed. And that bigger house may mean a longer commute to work.

But, we might draw a very different picture if we looked at the hours that people work over their lifetime. Today, people tend to start working later - after spending more years on education - and also to retire earlier. Thus, many of the higher-paid workers may merely be postponing leisure for later in life. In fact, they may be choosing more leisure than their parents, as life expectancy has been increasing and the quality of life at older ages has been improving dramatically.

Moreover, people choose to work because it means more than bread alone. Work increases among more highly educated workers may be partly due to their finding their jobs more interesting than do low-wage people. "The nonmonetary returns to work have increased for the more educated and stayed pretty much the same for the less educated,” says Stanford economics professor John Pencavel. Women's increased market work, in particular, owes much to changes in societal values and expectations. Also, it may be that today we tend to draw a closer link between professional success and our personal identity, and that this is particularly true of more educated workers.

For less-educated workers, whose income has fallen in real terms over the past two decades, the greater labor force participation of wives owes much more to the need to compensate for their husband's decreasing earnings than to a decision for unbridled materialism.

And, we can find some of the blame for the contemporary rush in choices that are made at a broader cultural and social level. For instance, economists Linda Bell and Richard Freeman have speculated that the reason Americans today tend to work more hours than Germans may be related to the higher degree of earnings inequality in the United States. There are greater rewards to effort at the high end in the United States, where people in the top bracket face lower taxes than Germans. At the same time, Germany has a much more generous social benefits system, which protects those at the low end. In the United States, the penalties to unemployment or layoff are substantial, and workers may find that they have to work as hard as they can when they can.

Within the constraints and incentives placed by our society, people have some room for individual choices in managing career and family, consumption and work. While the workplace and family routines will probably continue to adapt to the increased labor force participation of women, workers will probably always face inevitable and often painful trade-offs in making these choices.

And it is important to keep some perspective. Today's hours of work pale when compared to 100 years ago. The long days of workers in the 1880s were typically filled with repetitive motions, red-hot temperatures, poor-quality air, and the deafening din of the nation's rising industry. And that was an improvement from the 1830s, when the 12-hour day prevailed. Progress since then has been undeniable.

To a certain extent, the time pressure we feel today is an inevitable consequence of our wealth and progress. Many of us worry less about satisfying basic needs and instead hope for professional achievement, family well- being, and leisure. Moreover, increasing information technology makes us aware of all the alternatives available and fans our desires. A growing number of life alternatives and entertainment options makes time feel like the ultimate scarce resource.


Perceptions of time vary according to culture and place, says psychology professor Robert Levine at California State University in Fresno. And, he adds, the Northeast is most likely to be in the fast lane. Dr. Levine ranked the pace of life in 36 U.S. cities according to the walking speed of pedestrians in a downtown street, the transaction speed of bank clerks, the talking speed of postal workers, and the proportion of people wearing wristwatches during business hours. His results the Northeast outpaced the West Coast; Boston topped the list of 36 cities, ahead of New York and Buffalo; and Worcester, Providence, and Springfield (Massachusetts) were placed sixth, seventh, and eighth, respectively.

The cities that scored highest also tended to have higher incidence of heart disease and higher rates of cigarette smoking. But the connection between fast-paced environments and negative consequences is far from clear, according to Dr. Levine. Time pressure need not be stressful; it can also be seen as challenging and stimulating. "It is all in the person-environment fit,” he says. "You take a fast-paced Wall Street lawyer and put him in Fresno, California, and he will be more stressed.”


Because of women's integration into the paid labor force, families increasingly resort to the market for the types of goods and services that women traditionally provided. This has led to a greater specialization in household production.

"I outsource everything I possibly can,” says Nicole Gardner, VP for Human Resources in North America at Mercer Management Consulting. After a long and travel-intensive workweek, Gardner wants to spend her time at home with her three children and her husband, who works at chip manufacturer LSI Logic.

To be able to do so, Gardner employs people to do the housecleaning, others to do the yard work, and a service called Streamline for grocery shopping, dry cleaning, film developing and other errands. As far as cooking goes, Gardner often orders takeout or buys prepared meals.

"I'm working with our new babysitter to help run certain aspects of the household like making dental appointments for the kids, keeping a shopping list, or taking the kids to the bike shop for new helmets,” she says.

While all these services certainly help, they still require substantial coordination and management, and this can be another full-time job.


Michael and Leora Wechsler are both professionals in their early 30s. They love their jobs and derive great personal fulfillment from them. As professionals who work full-time, they both have long workweeks. And, as proud and devoted parents of two very young children, the rest of their time is more than fully taken.

"One night, I made Michael a peanut butter sandwich for dinner. He said to me ‘Wow! You went all out!'” recalls Leora. "The thing was that he meant it. For us, salad is considered a luxury.” The couple often ends up having cold cereal together after the kids are asleep. "Making our bed in the morning is not even on the radar screen,” she says.

As an assistant district attorney in Boston, Leora specializes in prosecuting child abusers. Her hours are usually 830 a.m. to 530 p.m., and she generally doesn't need to work weekends. But, when she is on trial, everything else stops. Sometimes she needs to get in touch with policemen on late shifts, which means she is on the phone with them after midnight.

"We couldn't afford to live on one job,” says Michael, who is a pulmonary physician involved in research and patient care at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. His day job goes from 8 a.m. until 530 p.m., but he tends to work on his research after Leora has gone to sleep, sometimes until two in the morning. He also moonlights one or two nights a week at other hospitals - either in the emergency room or overseeing patients - in order to afford all their expenses.

Day care for their four-year-old son Avi, and their new baby, Rachel, is going to cost them close to $25,000 this year. Although they expect their salaries to increase as they get older, they are not expecting their costs to come down any time soon. "We haven't even begun to think about paying for college, but thanks for stressing me out” says Michael.

Avi has been in day care at Michael's workplace since he was 16 weeks old. Michael usually drops him off before 830 in the morning and picking him up on time is the most stressful part of the day. The day care center charges a dollar for every minute parents are late after six. Although they could arrange for someone else to take him home, the Wechslers do not want to do this. Since they only have one car, when Michael can't make it on time, Leora must take a cab.

For both Michael and Leora, family time is the most valuable. "You have really short (family) days when you work,” says Leora. "You are cramming reading, fun, individual time - not to mention eating - all between 630 p.m. and 11 p.m.” For Michael, the most detrimental aspect of his routine is that he doesn't get to spend as much time with his family as he would like.

On weekends, both are full-time parents. "I don't even put on lipstick,” Leora remarks. They try to do fun things - of course, interspersed with going to the dry cleaners, buying gifts, sending cards, and all the other busy work which they try to do on their way to the zoo.

Neither of them knows how long they will be able to keep this pace. They would love to add more hours to their days, but since that can't be done, they continue to push time to its limit. "You have to be flexible, be willing to compromise, and set your priorities. It is impossible to have everything, but you can have almost everything,” says Michael.Neither of them knows how long they will be able to keep this pace. They would love to add more hours to their days, but since that can't be done, they continue to push time to its limit. "You have to be flexible, be willing to compromise, and set your priorities. It is impossible to have everything, but you can have almost everything,” says Michael.

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