America is the fabled land of plenty, and according to Juliet Schor, most of us seem to be lining up for more than our share of work hours. In our unabated obsession to get more than our fair share of the virtual cornucopia of goods and services out there in the marketplace, we seem to have become collectively addicted to working more and more hours in a devil's bargain with our employers. This book is a wonderful overview of this long-term trend toward overwork, where the average American now works the equivalent of an extra month a year. Since it is cheaper to pay someone overtime than it is to hire new workers and pay the associated benefits, corporations gladly ante up to pay for our increasing presence at work. Yet this mysterious and unexpected contemporary American addiction to being on the job has its associated costs (as well as causes).
Harvard professor Juliet Schor spins a convincing and disturbing tale regarding the increasing numbers of hours we spend each week at work rather than leisure. This is a historical surprise, since most baby boomers emerged from the colleges and universities convinced we would have more leisure time and better ways to pursue our many avocational interests than any generation in the past. In this entertaining, topical, and quite readable book, the author surveys a plethora of reasons for the surprising trend toward overwork. The principal dynamic she pinpoints in influencing this trend is an economy that literally demands extra effort and time from its employees, an economy which until quite recently had a chronic shortage of available jobs and "surplus" labor pool of potential workers. Under such circumstances, anyone lacking the requisite willingness to work extra hours was indeed dispensable. Thus one becomes a careerist in an effort to survive. She also details how our culturally conditioned goal-oriented attitude toward time as a resource to be used effectively and efficiently rather than as a precious resource to be used to increase the quality of our own lives plays into the situation.
For Schor, we are on a treadmill, if not to oblivion, then to an impoverished cultural life where we are what we do occupationally rather than what we do and what we become in our leisure hours pursuing our avocations and our personal lives with family and friends. This is an important and path breaking book, one that we should find especially relevant given the fact that many of the jobs we are so seemingly addicted to will soon fade away in the new markets and new economies of the so-called "Third Wave". Anyone who has experienced "downsizing" at the hands of a large and impersonal corporation can tell you how quickly all those sacrifices and long hours are disregarded and forgotten by your employer. The emotional and economic impacts of such events can be devastating to the individual and his or her family. As a friend said to me recently, anyone who is what they do really isn't very much at all. Read and heed.
Juliet Schor presents many balanced and interesting facts, stats, and trends in the past and present individual and collective work environment in the United States. Do most Americans realize this or even think about it?....I've met only a few who do. Since World War II worker productivity per capita has more than doubled. And, the hours worked has increased so steadily that work hours will be at the levels of what they were in the 1920s. The average American takes 12 days off per year, which is the lowest in the industrialized world. Yet Americans are in more personal debt than at any time at our history. Most today, will work into their 70s as the thing called retirement is not possible for most.
Question: is it worth it? The Puritanical work-consume-work-consume-die mentality is being questioned by some Americans, now that their investments, pensions, and 401-Ks have lost the principal to allow them to live and do what they have always been wanting to do. This book may seem contrary to the way most Americans have been raised and advised throughout their lives.
Do Americans have time to reflect, think, relax, and pursue anything to their liking? The answer depends on who you are, so ask yourself that question. This is a relevant book for a very relevant topic.
on September 26, 2001
I disagree with the reviewer who blasts Schor's accusations against corporate America.
"Get a job you like and live within your means," he advises.
Trouble is, there's something very peculiar about the way the job market is set up. As a bachelor's degreed worker, looking for a moderate way job, I've found full-time (PLUS - emphasis on the plus) jobs at $50K and full-time jobs at $25K, but where the heck are the half-time jobs at $25K?
No where to be found.
"Face-time" requirements and inflexibility on the part of most companies thwart the moderation strategy.
Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1992)
Fifteen years ago, when The Overworked American came out, I was, in fact, one of those overworked Americans: a retail manager, one of the demographics Schor singles out (for the outrageous practice of requiring fifty or more hours of work per week on a salary exempt from overtime). I soon came to realize that quality of life was more important than paycheck, and exited that position stage left, but didn't get around to reading the book that had so piqued my curiosity until this year. I have to say that while I wholeheartedly agree with most of Schor's conclusions here-- I would find it odd for anyone not to-- the ways she goes about reaching some of them leave a great deal to be desired.
Schor, as has been noted in a number of reviews, is (at least in these pages) an unapologetic socialist, and as the old saying goes, "when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." It doesn't occur to her that there might be other ways to practically apply her otherwise sound advice than aggressive unionization or other such measures (the dark sides of which, of course, are never mentioned even in passing), despite the fact that she notes a number of other countries where reforms such as those she advocates have taken root without such measures. The basic paradox inherent in that sentence pervades the book; it raises the rather odd idea that Schor started with her conclusions, then went back and filled in the blanks, never bothering to make sure that research A gelled with opinion B. It's no wonder, given this, that Library Journal said of this book that it has "an important message that will probably not be taken seriously."
In that light, I'd like to say that the importance of those conclusions cannot be overstated, and that a decade and a half later we're still wallowing in the same morass. Don't listen to those who say that instituting these reforms will cause an economic collapse; as Schor points out, American workers get less than half the paid holidays of the second-stingiest nation (and with the collapse of sick and vacation time into this loathsome "paid time off" category, which has allowed companies to shave weeks off the average employee's time off, it's just gotten worse in the past few years), but I haven't seen any other major Western democracies falling into economic chaos because their workers just aren't working enough. There is valuable stuff at the destination, however suspect the journey may be. ***
on June 8, 1999
Juliet Schor show us not only are we working longer than anytime in the past 50 years, we are trying to squeeze more activities into our days. The important things, like spending time with our families, helping with school work, cooking a decent homecooked meal, are sacrificed because if we try to go home at 5p.m. we are considered slackers. But it is the workers' fault as much as the employer, because we need the overtime pay to pay off our credit card debt, to send our kids to private schools, to pay for the new SUV and Minivan and the suburban dreamhouse. It's a ratrace and we are the rats and we wouldnt dream of sitting it out.
on October 31, 2006
Aspects of this work are dated but Shor's book invigorates the term "wage slave" with new meaning. In this work you'll learn:
* USA citizens are the most overworked and among the least rewarded in real terms in the industrialized world.
* Most USA citizens would rather have more time off than higher pay.
* Overwork brings stresses to families and individuals that have huge costs which are largely unknown.
* The assault on the 40 hour work week, which itself is onerous and unnecessary.
* The so-called golden age in the 50's and 60's of the stay-at-home mom is largely a myth.
* Had Social Security been allowed to thrive instead of tampered with by elected officials, a retirement age of 50 would have been possible in the 1990s.
* How a 4-day, 32-35 hour work week at full pay is not only possible but economically desirable as well.
We've been duped by the American (over)work ethic, which is little more than an ideology that has evolved to enrich others by making overwork seem both inevitable and natural. Shor shows us that overwork is neither.
on January 4, 2000
Juliet Schor makes a variety of intersting points. Her main argument is that people today are working an average of 163 extra hours of paid employment each year. She talks about the paradox where employed people are forced to work overtime, while the underemployed can't find enough work. She speculates why people are working more, especially with the "cycle of work and spend" that most of us are in. She is describing the trends that have creeped up on us, wherby work has become all consuming, and people don't know how to relax or recreate anymore. She even writes about the new American Pastime, mall shopping.
My initial thought was that the book seemed hurried, and very random in its writing. But it did force me to realize why I am working more, and the fact that I have forgotten how to relax.
on June 8, 2001
When Schor's book came out in the early ninties, people were somehow blind to the fact that Americans were working more and had significantly less leisure time. Her book functioned very much like the child who sees that the emperor has no clothes. Once this book was out, everyone began to realise what should have been obvious about the changes in the American workplace. But what give's Schor's book continued value is her analysis of the reasons why American's are still in this time trap. She goes beyond the usual analysis of the effects of advertising and consumerism by taking a look at labor history and showing why the people who run the workplace prefer to offer workers a productivity dividend of money, not time. She raises important questions about how much choice workers have about the hours they spend at work. A terrific book.
on May 21, 2001
Ten years ago, then recently appointed Harvard sociology professor Juliet B. Schor wrote a disarmingly truthful book, titled THE OVERWORKED AMERICAN, about the dramatically lowered yet unpublicized quality of life in America. She claimed, accurately, that work in America is overdone and overemphasized, wheras leisure and "quality time" away from work is underdone. Her very worthwhile book became a New York Times listed best seller, then shot into obscurity with amazing, almost devastating rapidity.
A decade later, following eight years of the Clinton administration's non-stop, machine gun style propaganda campaign advising America it "never had it so good" (quality of life-wise), Schor's book is almost forgotten, never discusssed seriously, and not regarded as what in fact it was and is, one of the great and important classic works by a scholar on the subject of labor in America at the close of the twentieth century.
Schor has gone on to write other, far less impressive books. Her recent books lack the gusto and fervor of THE OVERWORKED AMERICAN (1991), and are not about subjects as important. She seems, de facto, to have joined the people who nay-sayed the importance of her 1991 book. That's a shame, because the book was good, she was right to write it, and deserved/deserves far more acclaim and gratitude than she got when, it seems, she stuck her then young neck out and told the truth about a painful and politically incorrect subject, the brutal yet undiscussed and mostly unchallenged bad conditions which face American workers.
Her book, THE OVERWORKED AMERICAN, had implications discussed only by Ralph Nadar among Presidential candidates in the 2000 elections, and only briefly and superficially by him.
Do get a hard-back copy of this book (the paperback, which I haven't read, may well lack some of the good stuff included in the hard-back version....changes occur when hard back books appear in paper-back versions). ... if sold new today, and tells the truth about the American labor situation and quality of life situation not found elsewhere at any price.
Sometimes, only old books tell the truth about important subjects. That's what classics, even ones not yet accorded "classic" status, are all about.
Every now and again someone taps our collective shoulder and says "you're working too much." These infrequent reminders, often ensconced in scholarly works, tend not to resonate outside the literati's realm. Nonetheless, they send ripples through the grapevine, and for a moment the work hours debate seems resurrected from the sludge. But soon counter-arguments and brickbats fly, and the topic resubmerges to "unmentionable" status. In 1962 Sebastian De Grazia's "Of Time, Work and Leisure" exhumed leisure's hoary maw long enough to flicker a flame. This tome asked a simple question: "why did we choose work over leisure?" Then it fizzled. Thirty years later, the release of Juliet Schor's book, "The Overworked American," also followed this pattern. Though it shot up the best seller lists its influence seems to have now dissipated. These days, questions concerning working hours and leisure do not flood the mainstream nor do they seem at the forefront of consciousness. Regardless, people continue to ask themselves if they work too much. Many of them don't know where to go for answers.
Though "The Overworked American" may not solve everyone's work-life balance problems, it does provide much inspiration and fuel for thought. Schor reiterates de Grazia's question as to why America chose work over leisure. But she doesn't think we "chose" work like we "choose" cookies, she instead scrutinizes our culture and determines that it continues to demand more work. For many caught on the hamster wheel leisure remains a far off, almost nonexistant, possibility. Some wouldn't recognize leisure if they saw it. Some might not even know what to do with it if presented with some. Business, according to Schor, has many incentives to increase working hours and subsequently reduce leisure. For one, headcount overhead and benefits make employees expensive commodities. Looking through the greenbar, from a general ledger point of view, companies should derive as much benefit from each worker as possible. The more workers, the more expense. Longer hours for fewer employees can thus translate into savings by slashing the requisite number of in-house staff. Salaried employees, exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, make this possible. And many live this reality. Schor never accuses corporations of evil-doing, she just heavily suggests that they act in conformance to our bottom-line culture. And the bottom-line has no time for the absence of work.
Schor also admonishes our consumer culture rife with necessary luxuries. Today's fashion becomes tomorrow's garage sale fodder. A cycle begins. As people strain to keep up with this vortex they soon find themselves in a work-and-spend whirlwind. In the process they create discontent by emphasizing future gains over current well-being. Paradise always seems one step away. Just keep working. Schor dubs this modern phenomenon "The Squirrel Cage." Modern because historically, according to this book, people had more free time. Work didn't clog life's every nanosecond. Before industrialization mass consumption meant squat. Whatever pre-industrial people lacked in lifestyle amenities they gained in leisure. Then came the commodification of everything, including time. Technology, which could have saved time, instead spurred more production and accumulation. Time saving machines made us paradoxically busier. As such, the more our lifestyles improved the less time we had to enjoy them. And here we sit today.
Some scholars criticized Schor's data, saying that she had it backwards. They said reliable data showed work hours decreasing. Others called her suggestions, outlined in chapter six, idealistic or unrealistic. She foresaw all of this. In the book's original preface she stated her minimum expectations: "If nothing else I hope to help revive the public discussion on hours of work which died out fifty years ago." The book accomplished this without question. But only for a time. Business had little patience for the claims this book makes. They buried them like fish in the garden. Resistance to limiting work hours remains fervent. But many people still feel that they don't have enough time for work, family, and a meaningful life. The Economic Policy Institute reported as such in 2004, along with skyrocketing family work hours.
The main value of Schor's book, outside of squabbles concerning data and idealism, lies in her analysis of modern American work and consumer culture. Much of what she says will clank a bell for the average American. The book also points to solutions, though it never becomes prescriptive. And though it never clearly defines leisure, what it might mean to many Americans, nor how to reconcile leisure with consumer culture, it nonetheless provides ample information for those caught in work-and-spend to take control of their lives. Hopefully those who can benefit from "The Overworked American" can find leisure time to read it.