from Juliet Schor
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
to Take Back Your Time
time with your children (do household chores together,
relax and talk, play.).
out one activity from your child's schedule.
out one activity from your own schedule.
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!
dinner as a family on a regular basis.
TV viewing to one hour per day or eliminate TV
for a week.
out junk mail (find out how at www.junkbusters.com).
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.)
a simple vacation. (Spend time in your own town-go
to a museum, see a play, read books to your children.)
quiet time for yourself every day. Start with
five or ten minutes a day.
out local Best Practices awards to companies with
good work/life balance policies.
a job-share for yourself. Encourage work-sharing
instead of layoffs in your firm.
a month-long sabbatical.
your Parent- Teachers Association to sponsor a
discussion forum about over-scheduling of children's
and adapted from "50 Plus Pretty Quick Things You
Can Do For Take Back Your Time Day," [
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
The Labor Movement: the folks who brought
you the weekend.
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
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.
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).
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.
Four-hour Modules instead of an Eight-hour Day?
In their 1998 book
(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
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
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
-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.
Excerpted and adapted from a talk given by Juliet Schor, October
24, 2003, for the first annual "Take Back Your Time Day,"
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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