Working Longer For Less

Every once in a while you read something that is at the same time revolutionary and somewhat obvious–which is a reminder of how many obvious things we all ignore each day. That’s my reaction to Sara Robinson’s long, fascinating piece at AlterNet on the demise of the 40-hour work week, one of those great progressive accomplishments of the past that las long been abandoned for a large percentage of the American workforce.

Robinson patiently reviews the long history of the drive for a 40-hour week, and the abundant research that convinced the U.S. business community, independently of pressure from workers and their unions, to move in this direction. Until the dawn of the Digital Age, she notes, this was the nearly-universal consensus of both researchers and employers:

Adding more hours to the workday does not correlate one-to-one with higher productivity. Working overtime is unsustainable in anything but the very short term. And working a lot of overtime creates a level of burnout that sets in far sooner, is far more acute, and requires much more to fix than most bosses or workers think it does. The research proves that anything more than a very few weeks of this does more harm than good.

This was considered true, by the way, even for “managerial” staff who did not benefit from wage and hour laws designed to ensure eight-hour days and 40-hour weeks from wage workers, with additional compensation for the occasional “overtime” (itself a quaint-sounding concept these days).

But with the advent of an economy focused increasingly on “knowledge workers” and suffused with a culture of “passion” and “excellence,” everything we once knew about productivity in “overtime” was quickly forgetten, says Robinson, even though research clearly showed that if anything mental work was even less sustainable than physical labor over longer periods of time. Led by the celebrated culture of Silicon Valley, “knowledge workers” were increasingly expected–not just encouraged–to work ever-longer hours, at the expense not just of productivity, but of any real measurement of quality of life; it’s no accident, moreover, that “knowledge workers” often lacked protection by laws or by unions:

The rapacious new corporate ethic was summarized by two phrases: “churn ‘em and burn ‘em” (a term that described Microsoft’s habit of hiring young programmers fresh out of school and working them 70 hours a week until they dropped, and then firing them and hiring more), and “working 90 hours a week and loving it!” (an actual T-shirt worn with pride by the original Macintosh team. Productivity experts estimate that we’d have probably had the Mac a year sooner if they’d worked half as many hours per week instead.) And this mentality soon spread from the technology sector to every industry in every corner of the country.

The new ideal was to unleash “internal entrepreneurs” — Randian übermenschen who would devote all their energies to the corporation’s success, in expectation of great reward — and who were willing to assume all the risks themselves. In this brave new world, the real go-getters were the ones who were willing to put in weekends and Saturdays, who put their families on hold, who ate at their desks and slept in their cubicles. Forty-hour weeks were for losers and slackers, who began to vanish from America’s business landscape. And with their passing, we all but forgot all the very good reasons that we used to have those limits.

Robinson hints at another consequence of this new workplace culture: a kind of sysemic recklessness that has manifested itself in the growth of the speculative professions, and various economic bubbles and crashes.

This piece is more a summary of forgotten truths and a plea for sanity than any prescription for specific changes. It’s also a bit frustrating, insofar as so most of the individual workers Robinson is talking about–knowledge workers, contract workers, and middle-managers alike–have little or no power to change the situation, and often are driven to long hours and unbalanced life by sheer necessity.

But if you have the time–Catch 22!–give this article a read. You may not sleep longer or better for it, but it will certainly help put into perspective how much Americans have lost, individually and collectively, as the price of our progress in this dangerous new milennium.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.