More Than Money
Issue #36

Money and Work

Table of Contents

“Viewpoint: Take Back Your Time”

Thoughts from Juliet Schor 1

Respectful dialogue among people of diverse viewpoints is a hallmark of More Than Money. More Than Money Journal readers vary widely in age, family history, politics, religion, net worth, source of income, geography, and other factors. We publish thoughtful commentary on topics of interest to our readers in order to stimulate lively discussion and creative reflection. The opinions expressed by the writers of Viewpoint are not necessarily those of More Than Money. To tell us what you think, send an email to editor@morethanmoney. org or write the Editor at More Than Money Journal , 1430 Massachusetts Avenue, Third Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138.

Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College. Her research over the last ten years has focused on issues pertaining to trends in work and leisure, consumerism, the relationship between work and family, women's issues, and economic justice. She is the author of The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1993) and The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (Perennial, 1999). She has co-edited The Golden Age of Capitalism: Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience (Clarendon Press, 1991), The Consumer Society Reader (New Press, 2000), and Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the 21st Century (Seven Stories Press, 1998). Ms. Schor is a board member and co-founder of the Center for a New American Dream, an organization devoted to making North American lifestyles more ecologically and socially sustainable. She also teaches periodically at Schumacher College, an international center for ecological studies based in England.

New Englanders of the mid-nineteenth century were pioneers in the struggle for the ten-hour (and, later, the eight-hour) work day. In 1886 at Faneuil Hall in Boston, they rallied around a stirring song: "Eight Hours. 2 "

We mean to make things over,
we're tired of toil for naught.
But bare enough to live on,
never an hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine;
we want to smell the flowers;
we're sure that God has willed it,
and we mean to have eight hours.
We're summoning our forces
from shipyard, shop, and mill;
eight hours for work,
eight hours for rest,
eight hours for what we will.

Amazing as it may seem today, with our phenomenal wealth, technological progress, and enlightened social ideas, American workers never did attain those eight hours for what they willed. Although the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law 75 years ago, the average full-time worker in the United States continued to work more than 40 hours per week throughout the twentieth century. For blue- and pink-collar workers, overtime has remained a persistent part of their jobs, and in nearly all cases, a mandatory part. Salaried employees, whose numbers have grown steadily, have lived with ill-defined but typically high norms of work time, which they ignore at their peril. The corporate culture of face-time is regularly bemoaned, even by CEOs and others at the top, but companies just can't seem to shake it off.

In defiance of the experts' earlier predictions, we entered the twenty-first century having just experienced three decades of rising work time. Between 1973 and the present, the average U.S. employee added 200 hours to his or her annual schedule-an increase of five additional weeks. In 1996, the U.S. surpassed Japan-previously the industrialized world's workaholic nation-and earned the dubious distinction of having the longest working hours of any wealthy country in the world.

That record stands in sharp contrast to the gains of Western Europeans, who now put in roughly nine fewer weeks per year of work hours than Americans do. Political leaders and corporate managers overseas understand that a life of overwork is unhealthy, inhumane, and bad for business. By honoring the need for work-life balance, they avoid many of the problems associated with an overworking society: physical and mental distress, declining communities, poor quality of life, family instability, and even excessive environmental degradation. (Research by Tim Kasser and Kirk Warren Brown has shown that people practicing "voluntary simplicity," with its lower work hours and time pressure, have smaller ecological footprints. 3 )

Tips to Take Back Your Time
  • Spend time with your children (do household chores together, relax and talk, play.).
  • Cut out one activity from your child's schedule.
  • Cut out one activity from your own schedule.
  • Make a list of things you want to do and things that give you joy. Put those items on your todo list-and then do them!
  • Have dinner as a family on a regular basis.
  • Cut TV viewing to one hour per day or eliminate TV for a week.
  • Cut out junk mail (find out how at www.junkbusters.com).
  • Designate times when you don't respond to instant access technology. (Let the answering machine take messages while you are eating dinner with your family or putting your children to bed, don't respond to email one day a week, be unreachable for at least part of your vacation.)
  • Take a simple vacation. (Spend time in your own town-go to a museum, see a play, read books to your children.)
  • Take quiet time for yourself every day. Start with five or ten minutes a day.
  • Give out local Best Practices awards to companies with good work/life balance policies.
  • Consider a job-share for yourself. Encourage work-sharing instead of layoffs in your firm.
  • Take a month-long sabbatical.
  • Encourage your Parent- Teachers Association to sponsor a discussion forum about over-scheduling of children's time.

-Excerpted and adapted from "50 Plus Pretty Quick Things You Can Do For Take Back Your Time Day," [ .PDF file ]

What accounts for our penchant for long hours of work? Many point to the Puritan work ethic, long a staple of American culture. However, it is important to remember that 50 years ago, with a work ethic at least as pronounced as our culture can claim today, Americans worked far less than Europeans. Even if the labor struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries didn't yield an eight hour day, they did result in Saturdays and Sundays off (meant to be days of rest), paid vacations, and work-hours legislation. I am reminded of one of my favorite bumper stickers- The Labor Movement: the folks who brought you the weekend.

Yet those gains are eroding, as the 24/7 economy has seized the business imagination; as growing numbers of employees report that, while they are contractually entitled to vacation time, time off has become increasingly difficult to take in today's super-competitive business environment; and as the need to bring in two incomes has turned weekends into the time when we do the work of maintaining a household and family. (That's when we shop, run errands, clean, and cook.)

The causes of overwork in America are varied, and some of the factors are not simply due to the pressures of work. Some point to psychological and cultural factors to explain our predicament, and certainly it is true that when hurrying and busyness are status symbols, too many of us overschedule our children, at least in part, because everybody else seems to be doing it. The problem of individual workaholism can also be fueled by an unhealthy refusal to address problems such as loneliness or unhappiness. But these explanations are all partial, and they fail to account for the persistent and growing pressure that is resulting from changing economic conditions. Businesses have decided that the road to competitiveness is through downsizing. This creates a higher intensity of work per person and requires longer hours of work from those lucky individuals who manage to land the diminishing number of full-time, career jobs (with benefits) that are available in our economy.

With this perspective, we can see that the need to combat the problem of overwork is part of a larger struggle for a humane economy that works for everyone -an economy in which the fruits of people's labor are distributed fairly, rather than increasingly unequally; an economy in which our collective wealth is used to support our communities, our children, and our environment; and an economy in which we deal fairly with people around the world-rather than acting as beneficiaries of a global system that allows large transnational corporations to enrich themselves at the expense of poor peasants and workers. (That has been the record of the past 20 years of globalization and neo-liberal policies).

In 1912, women textile workers went on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in one of the most famous episodes in U.S. labor history. adopted as their rallying cry the slogan "Bread and Roses," demanding not only the staples of life but the time to appreciate its beauties. That slogan has special relevance today as the movement to combat overwork also seeks to reconnect us to nature, to poetry, and to the idea that every human being deserves a life with dignity. The Lawrence strikers asked for roses. Many of us have flowers now, but we're desperate for time to smell them.

Out-of-the-Box Solutions
Four-hour Modules instead of an Eight-hour Day?

In their 1998 book Successful Aging (Pantheon Books), Robert L. Kahn, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Michigan, and John Rowe, M.D., of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, proposed that employers divide the work day into four-hour segments instead of one eight-hour stint. People could choose to work different fourhour blocks-perhaps one today and two tomorrow-depending on other demands in their lives. The authors maintain that in order to keep pace with trends toward hands-on education, two-career families, and productive old age, society needs a more flexible approach to work scheduling.

The proposal for four-hour modules is based on ten years of interdisciplinary research into healthy aging. According to Kahn, our age-graded, rigidly compartmentalized work structure assigns people to 20 or more years of education, followed by 40 years of intensive work, followed by almost 20 years of relatively unproductive retirement. As a result, he asserts, "we've got bored and turned-off kids in high school, overworked two-job families with kids, and bored and self-indulgent old folks who are resented by young working people."

A more flexible four-hour module would aid high school and college students clamoring for work experience, parents straining under the pressure of family and job duties, and senior citizens who want less work but aren't ready to retire. Using the modular approach a person could "mix and match" modules with other projects. For example, someone could work eight hours in one job on Monday, four hours in another job on Tuesday, and spend Wednesday attending classes or caring for children. Adults would find more time for training in the latest technologies. High school and college students could build work experience that would lead to other jobs. And elderly people could phase into retirement instead of abruptly ending work and then asking, "What's next?"

Allaying fears that such a model would sap the labor force, the authors point out that more people would be working than ever before-because more flexible work scheduling would add people at both ends of the age spectrum.

How practical is the modular format? Some restaurants, retail stores, and hospitals already use it. And, given the advent of computerized scheduling and portable benefits, many employers could easily adopt it.

-Adapted and reprinted with permission from "Psychologists propose abandoning the eight-hour work day for the four-hour module," by B. Murray, APA Monitor, Vol. 29, No. 7, July 1998.


1 Excerpted and adapted from a talk given by Juliet Schor, October 24, 2003, for the first annual "Take Back Your Time Day," Boston, Massachusetts.

2 "Eight Hours," music by Rev. Jesse H. Jones and lyrics by I.G. Blanchard.

3 Published in Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America by John DeGraaf, Berrett-Koehler, 2003.


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