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At Work in the Digital Age:
Or Tips to Surviving the Second Industrial Revolution

MY GOOD FRIEND doesn't have much patience for ruminating on Americans' tendency to overwork and overspend.

Three months ago, Peter was among 7,000 employees laid off by a major firm in its efforts to weather the ongoing U.S. economic downturn. Yet when he, his wife and son visited Washington last month, I was surprised to see how terrific he looked. In fact the whole family seemed healthy, happy and at peace. Peter had been working freelance, he'd been writing for the first time in years, he'd begun running again and had taken off twenty pounds, and he'd become fast friends with his four-year-old son, Mathew. His wife, Trish, had made the transition from freelance to a part-time position with a company that had made her an offer too good to pass up. She seemed content and empowered. This was simply a different family than the harried, disconnected people who had visited us a year earlier.

And yet, though my friend was well aware of the remarkable changes in his family's lives and relationships, to his mind, the transformation had come at a great price. They owned a large home with a big mortgage to pay, and they were still making payments on the Camry and the minivan. My offer that they stay at our modest apartment rather than at the Hyatt downtown was politely declined. And a good portion of our weekend together was spent ducking in and out of shops. Over dinner, I found my conversational forays into the attractions of scaling back and living lightly weren't much in line with Peter's intent to add some shine to his CV with a stellar new entry and make up for lost time in supporting the lifestyle to which he and his family had grown accustomed.

Over the past 15 years, our friendship has weathered vast distances and differences. And prior to Peter's visit, I'd felt deeply concerned and frustrated about his situation. Yet, as we said our goodbyes, I was struck by the thought that, like so many of us Americans, my friend was perhaps as much a victim of his personal choices as of the system.

Running on Empty

There is no question that, as a people, Americans' most deeply engrained habits of working and consuming are unique. And it's a good thing for the environment that that's the case. One scientific study reports that if every person in the world were to consume like the average American, we'd need four more planets to supply the raw materials and absorb the waste.

Yet for many, Americans' work and spend habits are a cause for pride and celebration. When the Commerce Department reported last year that the productivity of American workers rose 2.5 percent over the previous five years, the business headlines were self-congratulatory and Wall Street cheered.

But what have these productivity gains done for the average American? We're producing more commodities and wealth by Tuesday than we once produced after a full week of work, and yet our leisure time is shrinking. American workers now produce our 1948 annual standard of living by July, yet we're still hard at it in August when our European counterparts are on their long summer holidays. Instead of using some of our treasured productivity gains for personal fulfillment and family fun, we're shuffling into the new millennium, sleepy-eyed, briefcase in hand, to work something that's approaching a six-day workweek.

According to one report by the Families and Work Institute, the average employed American now works over 47 hours per week. Those are longer hours than we worked 50 years ago, despite a doubling in national productivity. Add to that a half-hour commute (which would be blessedly short for many Americans) and you have a workweek that exceeds fifty-two hours. The Economic Policy Institute reports that a typical husband-and-wife household worked 500 more hours in 2000 than they did in 1990. In more than four out of five marriages today, both husband and wife work outside the home, putting an especially heavy strain on working parents and their children.

International comparisons perhaps most clearly reflect that American productivity in the workplace may be reaching the point of diminishing returns. Americans now work more hours per year than the people of every other industrialized nation. We now work over two weeks a year more than the average Japanese, and two full months more than the average German. These days the average European gets about three times as many days of paid vacation as her counterpart in the U.S. The average American takes 15 years to earn the vacation time that an Australian gets after one year on the job.

Consider also that after passing the 35-hour workweek into law a little over three years ago, France surpassed the U.S. in terms of productivity per hour for fiscal year 1999-2000. It seems a more awake worker is a more productive worker. Add to this that the productivity rates of the Netherlands grew faster than the U.S. throughout the 1990s. And nations including Denmark, Sweden and Germany are matching America's pace of growth step for step - despite the fact that they're enjoying all that personal time to devote to their families, their communities and themselves.

After our recent return from many years living in Asia, my hard-working wife is still reeling from the sudden absence of holidays to which she (and I) had grown accustomed. Beyond this, unlike the situation in Japan, (as well as France, Sweden, Italy and many other countries), my wife and I have felt the sudden impact of being dependent on an employer for our health care needs.

 

What's wrong with this picture? Why on Earth are we doing this to our selves, our families and the environment?

To be sure, there's a slew of macroeconomic rationale and explanation as to how we arrived at this state of affairs. And many of these factors can be out of our easy control. Competitive work environments, as well as fears surrounding corporate downsizing and financial insecurity, can provide powerful incentives to overwork.

At a more systemic level, many scholars suggest that what we're really experiencing here is a second Industrial Revolution, every bit as powerful and disruptive as the first. According to many experts, North Americans are working more than ever in large part because of new information and communications technologies that bring about higher demand and expectations for more output, performance and service. These technologies also have the effect of reconfiguring traditional jobs, supplanting some forms of labor, and realigning organizational and management structures throughout entire industries.

A study released this past summer by the New York Federal Reserve Board suggests that technology is indeed fueling America's recent productivity growth spurt. This study found that those industry sectors that had most aggressively adopted information technologies had been those that had grown the fastest.

Accompanying this technological remapping of the economy has been an ever-increasing polarization of the American workforce and income distribution. In the year 2000, Business Week calculated that cash compensation for CEOs at 365 top U.S. companies jumped 18 percent during a year when shareholder values were plummeting. At that time, annual compensation awarded to the country's leading business executives already exceeded the salaries of their lowest-ranking employees by a ratio of 400 to 1. The Council on International and Public Affairs in New York estimates that we'd have to go back to 1929, right before the Great Depression, to find wage and wealth inequality of the magnitude we're seeing today. That leaves a whole lot of Americans scrambling for the remaining, evermore slender slice of the pie at the dawn of this new millennium.

Taken all together, that's a great deal of instability and insecurity tossed into the macroeconomic mix. It doesn't take a great deal of clairvoyance to perceive that Americans are likely to clock more hours when we're feeling both man and machine breathing down our necks, offering to scoop up that job.

The Hard Work of Owning Up

And then again, the problem sometimes lies in our own priorities.

The fact is that, more often than not, we choose to remain on this merry-go-round of accelerating production and consumption, of doing and getting more. In this vicious cycle of bigger houses, more work, bigger cars, more work, bigger debt, more work, we too often do violence to our relationships, the subtle demands of the soul, and even to the environment that sustains us.

Yet when we look up from the grindstone and beyond our cultural biases, we can see that it simply doesn't have to be this way. In fact, back in the 1930s, the Senate passed a bill proposing a 30-hour workweek, only to back down in the face of opposition from the business community. Forty years later, President Nixon again broached the subject of a four-day workweek for Americans.

One personal option now being exercised by a small but growing number of Americans is to slow down, scale back, pay down debt and work a reduced schedule. Of course, this may not be an immediate option for everyone, especially those who don't have a safety net, who risk the loss of health coverage and retirement plans. But today's American workers would surely benefit by first taking some time to re-assess our cultural notions of work and success.

Think about how much time each week you spend at work, commuting, carpooling kids to activities, and even de-stressing at the end of a long day. How does that total look when compared to the number of hours you spend relaxing, socializing, reading, volunteering and caring for children?

Consider some alternatives to the typical workweek: flextime lets you rearrange your work schedule to accommodate childcare or other activities. Part-time work is also a viable option in a two-income household; savings on daycare, a second car, domestic help and take-out food may make up for that loss in income. Job swapping with coworkers is an excellent way to learn new skills, and job sharing allows you to split responsibilities with a colleague and cut your office time in half. Or exploit some of the liberating effects of the new communications technologies - try telecommuting, work in your slippers from the comfort of your home, and cut down on the expenses, hassle and pollution of the daily commute.

If you're inclined to take your convictions into the public sphere, there are a great number of resources for getting educated on the issues and joining with other like-minded individuals to address these issues at the local, state or national level. Numerous groups help individuals evaluate their work and financial priorities. Others advocate for new policies and employer programs offering part-time or flexible work options. A few organizations are even considering a national campaign for a four-day workweek. For more details, you can check some of the resources listed below.

In the meantime, though we haven't spoken much since that weekend, I know Peter's sorting through his options. I imagine he's still looking for that killer job - when he's not out with his clients, running, or determinedly teaching his little boy to play poker. Who knows, perhaps he'll discover that this life and these relationships thrust upon him a few months ago are somehow just enough, and that that hunger for something more, something bigger, someone's else's American dream, will fade away if you let it.

Easy First Steps

Keep a time diary for 4 to 5 days, recording the time you spend on activities such as shopping, driving, working, playing with kids, cooking, yard work and family activities. When you're finished, sit down alone or with the important people in your life and figure out whether your current time allocation is in line with your values and priorities. If it's not, start exploring possibilities for change.

Resources

New Road Map Foundation, PO Box 15981, Seattle WA, 98115. (206) 527-0437, www.newroadmap.org.

Seeds of Simplicity, P.O. Box 9955, Glendale, CA 91226. (818) 247-4332, www.seedsofsimplicity.org.

Northwest Earth Institute, 506 SW Sixth Avenue, Suite 1100, Portland, Oregon 97204. 503/227-2807, www.nwei.org.

Simple Living Networks, Post Office Box 233, Trout Lake, WA 98650. www.simpleliving.net.

And Juliet Schor's The Overworked American and The Overspent American are considered by many to be the definitive works on these issues.

 

 

 

According to many experts, Americans are working more than ever in large part because of new information and communications technologies that bring about higher demand and expectations for more output, performance and service.

 

 
 

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