September 6, 1999
President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers recently reported that Americans are spending more time at work and less with their families. Following a background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth assesses the state of the American worker.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more we're joined by Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, author of several books, and a monthly columnist for the magazine Reason; Kathleen Gerson, professor of sociology at New York University and author of No Man's Land: Men's Changing Commitments to Family and Work; Geoffrey Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Penn State University and co-author of Time for Life: the Surprising Way Americans Use their Time; and Paula Rayman, Director of the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute and co-editor of the Temple University Press, Labor and Social Change Series. Thank you all for being with us.
|Who is working more?|
Kathleen Gerson, let's get a little deeper into this. Who in this country is working more?
KATHLEEN GERSON, New York University: Well, that's a very good question because, indeed, we do have a group of people who are working very long work weeks compared to 30 years ago and compared to European societies. Those people tend to be highly educated in highly paid professional jobs, who face a great deal of pressure. On the other hand, we shouldn't forget that there's a growing time divide between workers of that sort and other workers who can't actually find enough work, wage workers, for example, workers who are struggling just to get that 40-hour work week so that they can meet their family needs.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go ahead, sorry.
KATHLEEN GERSON: So it's important to keep that in mind when we talk about the issue of overwork. What we've really got is a growing divide between some people who do have too much work and others who perhaps don't have enough work.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jeffrey Godbey, do you have anything to add to that?
GEOFFREY GODBEY, Penn State University: Well, Elizabeth, I'm a bit skeptical about the assumption that Americans are working more hours on average than they were 30 years ago. The time diary research that John Robinson and I do would lead you to the conclusion that Americans, on average, have gained about an hour of free time per day since 1965, and have used most of that gain for additional television viewing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go ahead. So, why do people feel like they're working more?
JEFFREY GODBEY: I think there's a difference between pace and duration. That is, the pace of life and the pace of work seem to clearly have sped up for large segments of the population. What we find is perhaps that people who working faster believe that they're working longer and, on average, we feel that that's not the case.
|A faster treadmill?|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Paula Rayman, go ahead.
PAULA RAYMAN, Radcliffe Public Policy Institute: What I was going to say is I think that rather than just focus on the issues exactly how many hours and whether it's more or less, there's been a more fundamental shift of why, indeed, most Americans feel like they're running harder to stay in place. And that has to do with the changing family dynamics on this in relationship to work. In most families today it takes two incomes to achieve the American dream. And this is really a basic shift that has happened since World War II. And so there are real issues for most Americans across our land today about how they manage to integrate their work lives and their family care giving responsibilities. And there is where the stress really gets people going.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Walter Olsen, do you agree with that, that that's where the real stress is?
WALTER OLSON, Manhattan Institute: The feeling of working longer probably especially is one felt by women who have entered the work force who might not have entered a generation ago. If you look at men's jobs, very, very few men would want to trade places with their fathers' jobs. Now we have fitness clubs; back then they had drudgery. And there is every evidence that we're working shorter hours, if we were in the workplace all along, again, a different situation if one has chosen to move into the workplace. But, by and large, we tend to romanticize the 50's. In fact, living standards were pretty poor for the population. We wouldn't put up with those living standards now, and, nowadays, people who work long hours tend to be the ones who are ambitious for one reason or another. They do sacrifice something. Often, it's something involving their family. But that's not the way most Americans choose to live.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh.
KATHLEEN GERSON: Elizabeth, let me jump in here and add something to both of these points. I think it really is misleading to focus on the individual. As Paula points out, even if the working hours or the work time or the work commitment of individuals may not have changed for the average worker, we've really go to start looking at families. What's happened now is there are more adults in the labor force. There are important gender dynamics to these changes. Women are now in the labor force for very good reasons. I agree with Walter. There are very strong pulls into the work force, and those have opened up opportunities for women, as well as for men. But this means that we really have to start looking at how to restructure work so that our family lives also can take an equal balance. And when you ask a younger generation of men and women what they want what they tell us is that they want to be able to balance family and work, that their ideal is a reasonable work hour, work week, strong work commitments, but not such a pressurized work environment that they can't also balance this with good quality time with their families. And that goes for men, as well as for women.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Geoffrey Godbey, would you dispute that, that families, in fact, are suffering from the amount of work that both partners are doing?
GEOFFREY GODBEY: I think one of the problems we've got is the distribution of work and free time. Most of our free time comes on weekdays, 25 of 40 hours on average, and it comes in small chunks. In many ways we still operate public schools as though we were an industrial or agricultural society, and the sequencing of events in our daily lives, I think, are particularly harmful to families, so I would agree that in terms of the way we've arranged work and the way we have arranged daily life needs to be radically altered.
|The decreasing role of unions|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paula Rayman, what role does the decreasing importance of unions play in all this?
PAULA RAYMAN: Well, for a long time, unions provided at least a certain segment -- It was never a majority, but it was certainly a strong minority -- of people in the work force, who didn't necessarily have a college education with some degree of job security and also a collective bargaining process where they could enhance opportunities and had dignity at the work place. With the decline of unions in our country now down to about 14 percent overall of the public and private sector, it has meant that for those people that find themselves particularly in the manufacturing and in the non-high end of our economy that really having the leeway to negotiate for things like flexibility, for job sharing, for a number of things that people on the high end might have really are absent from their vocabulary in their everyday workplaces, and there again has been no institutional shift to make up for that decline. And, again, people find themselves without the institutional formats to help them cope with this change that we've all been in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Walter Olson, do you have anything to add to that on the role of unions?
WALTER OLSON: Well, I associate unions - it may be that I've lived in big cities for too long - but with people wanting to work extra overtime hours because it pays time and a half, it's not clear that most of the trends we've been talking about have been affected that much one way or the other by the decline in unionization, or did they differ that much between the parts of the country, like the Northeast, that still have a lot of unions and the parts of the country that don't. I think one of the strange stories this Labor Day and for previous ones has been how little the conditions of average workers seemed to have been changed by the much-heralded decline of unionism.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Olson, do you think that there is a problem that needs to be solved as it's been defined here, especially for families?
WALTER OLSON: Let me get to the family issue in a moment, but the general issue of whether people are overworked, I guess I have to say I don't see a problem, because I think that the patterns we get are the results of the choices of the workers. It's true; you can't choose tomorrow whether you're going to work four days -- four hours or twelve hours, but you can exercise a lot of control over what your hours will be like a couple of years from now. You know what kinds of jobs reach that sort of demand and what kinds of jobs don't. And, by and large, people are choosing when they are in the long-hour jobs, they've chosen that.
KATHLEEN GERSON: Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes.
|Balancing work and family|
|KATHLEEN GERSON: Can I jump in and respond to that, because
I think that this whole notion of choice is very complicated, and while
I certainly agree that work is a powerful, meaningful commitment in people's
lives and that, in fact, that's a good thing - and on the one hand, we
talk about workaholism - but on the other hand, we talk about the work
ethic in this society. That's a good thing. However, choice is always
made within a context, and the context that workers are working in these
days is one that assumes an old-fashioned model of employers having very
high demands, of work being a very greedy institution, and workers are
simply concerned that if they were to pull back, they would pay very severe
career costs later on down the line, if not today. What workers say, especially
those who are putting in very long work weeks, is that their ideal would
be a 40-hour work week, but they're fearful that the cost of making that
choice in the long run would be very detrimental. The reason we should
worry about this is again because of family life and because we now -
we need to work toward gender equality and equity. And that means rearranging
the work place so that there is room for family responsibility and commitments
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paula Rayman, do you agree with that, and what do you think could be done specifically?
PAULA RAYMAN: Well, I do agree with that, and I think it's more than just a gender question. In the focus groups that we dealt with we found a lot of young men, the Generation X and Y-ers, are indeed talking about not wanting to have the jobs that their fathers did, as someone earlier pointed out, but also they do want to have more quality time with their families. They want to have work and also have a life. I think that also beyond just the cost to the family of doing business as usual, as we're doing it right now, the issue in front of America is sustaining democracy and making sure that parents have time to be involved with their children's education, to make sure that people have time to be active in civic responsibilities and participation, and it's the fabric really of our democratic way of life that really will be molded by choices that we'll be making about how to better integrate the structure of work with our institutions of family life and civic society. Right now, our country really needs good leadership on this. And I have to say that in focus groups that we've done at Radcliffe we have found that people from all different segments of society are looking for responses on this; they're looking for good leadership from the political angle, as well as from religious leaders, et cetera, and are feeling like that is absent. And so I think that one of the real questions in front of our nation as we turn to 2000 is: Are we going to come up with responsible and creative ways of coming up solutions on this?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Geoffrey Godbey, what do you think needs to be done?
GEOFFREY GODBEY: One of the things that I think we're starting to see happen that I think is worthwhile is the mass customization of time. That is, we're no longer a mass culture, and the way in which work is done and the way it integrates with school and community life may need to be radically different in an inner city area or a small town in the middle of Pennsylvania. And I think we're going to see things like public schools initiate radically different systems that increasingly recognize the work patterns of parents even at an individual level. We certainly have the capability to do that, but in some cases we're locked into industrial ways of using time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Walter Olson, very briefly, what would you change, if anything?
WALTER OLSON: The family issue needs to be addressed because although economists point out that every year labor-saving devices make it necessary to spend less time on housework, kids are not housework; kids are other people. And we should be a little concerned if kids are being neglected because of this.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Well, thank you all very much for being with us on this Labor Day.
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