Political Animal


March 15, 2012 12:25 PM Working Longer For Less

By Ed Kilgore

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 ├╝bermenschen 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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • estamm on March 15, 2012 12:35 PM:

    Imagine what the unemployment rate would be if corporations weren't able to work people 80 hours a week. They'd have to HIRE more people. Imagine that!

  • Anonymous on March 15, 2012 12:46 PM:

    estamm, exactly.

    I remember the push in Europe for a 35 hour work week during the eighties with the justification that it would be lowering the unemployment rate by spreading the same amount of work to more people.

  • g on March 15, 2012 12:52 PM:

    My brother, who is now 54, works for Lucent Technologies, and he is working maybe 10 - 11 hours a day. He is a project manager, working on projects worth tens of millions of dollars. He has no pension other than a 401K. He has recently been experiencing crippling back pain, and needs surgery. They are killing him.

  • TT on March 15, 2012 12:58 PM:

    At a construction company I used to work for, by far--by FAR--the most productive and successful project manager was the guy who came in around 8:30 every morning (as opposed to 6:30 or 7:00 for the rest of us) and usually left the office no later than 4:00 (as opposed to 5:00 or later). Oh, and he also had every Tuesday off to look after his kids, do housework, and even play golf now and then. That example's always stuck with me.

  • Ron Byers on March 15, 2012 12:59 PM:

    g, your brother is not alone. Why do you think companies routinely dump people like your brother and hire younger. Somewhere along the way we have bought into the perverted notion that we live to work.

  • Ron Byers on March 15, 2012 1:03 PM:

    TT, the manager of product assurance in my company operates like the guy you describe. For a long time some of our executives complained that he was lazy, but they never could prove it. Recently I told them they should look at how he organizes his time. They might want to emulate his approach.

  • boatboy_srq on March 15, 2012 1:30 PM:

    There's a corrolary here: that older workers are perceived as less desirable due to higher salary expectations, preexisting medical conditions, etc. Business not only likes the hard (younger) worker who puts in the kind of hours that the experienced (older) worker no longer can, it values that harder worker more - on paper - for that very reason. A lot of workplace critics discuss the plight of older workers from a perspective of experienced-is-less-desirable; not too many mention that the younger worker is perceived not only as more cost-efficient (on at least a per-worked-hour basis) and cheaper (experience is expensive) but also in terms of disinclination to expect the kind of once-necessary perks as the 8 hour day. We should stop talking about age discrimination and start talking about how overwork is killing the labor force at every employment level.

  • citizen_pain on March 15, 2012 1:53 PM:

    I have worked at a large teaching medical center in IT since 2001, starting in tech support and now in project management.

    3 years ago our new CIO came on board. He came from the corporate private healthcare sector. After a year of assimilation, he had hired his executive team. About 2 years ago, they announced that every single IT employee would have to reapply for their jobs, which were reconstituted and now require various certifications, etc. that were not required before. This was to provide cover to let people go under the guise they were not qualified, regardless of the fact they had been working their position for years. So for the past 2 years now, I have worked in the atmosphere of knowing I have to reapply for my own job. Those who were able to retire have, and many others have taken jobs with vendors they had worked closely with.

    What I am finding out is the fact that since I have been here for 10 years, this new executive regime considers that a negative, in that it demonstrates a lack of 'ambition'. I have lived in my town for 20 years, my family is here, and my daughter is growing up here. I thought loyalty and dedication counted for something. Not to this bunch.

    As it stands now, they are paying contractors who fly in and out every week on the company's dime, and stay at extended stay hotels, 2-3 times as much as a regular FTE for the same work. Just today I heard that even tier 1 workstation support techs are being outsourced. One of the techs flies in from Arizona and works 4 10 hour days. Slowly but surely our IT department is being filled with high paid directors and staff is being outsourced. I have overheard the director of our project management office saying that this job is 24/7, and she expects people to work weekends no matter what.

    I am 41 years old, and face the prospect of losing my job and having to find work in this market and it's terrifying. It wouldn't be so bad if it were just me I had to worry about, but I have a family to support, and I will most certainly have to borrow money somehow and re-certify. I too will most likely become a contractor at some point. I'll have to take care of my own insurance, retirement, etc.

    This is the future of American labor. Companies will no longer keep you on until retirement, provide healthcare and retirement benefits. etc.
    We're on our own.

    This is not what America is about, it's not what millions of men and women over the years have fought and died for. This is not the standard of living we should have to accept.

  • wihntr on March 15, 2012 2:11 PM:

    This does not just happen in the IT sector. My wife teaches high school. During the ten week summer break (actually only eight because the first and last weeks of summer "vacation" she is cleaning up from the recently-ended school year and then gearing up for the beginning of the year) she works only 8-10 hours a week. During the school year she come home, eats and then works for another four or five hours. On the weekend she puts in another 10-15. All told, she works 60-70 hours a week when school is in session-- 2600-2800 hours a year. After six years teaching that comes out to about $15 an hour. that's what the night manager at PDQ with a high school diploma makes.
    Why on earth do we need unions???

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 15, 2012 2:12 PM:

    I'm relatively young, so the disappearance of the 40-hour week doesn't bode well for my sort in the long run. Call me a lazy slacker, but I happily admit to having no desire whatsoever for working a job that regularly requires more than 40 hours a week. Of course that means I have to work in rinky-dink, low-wage jobs and risk no promotions, but think I can live with that... for the time being.

    A few things I've learned about myself in my short five-year work history:
    I avoid company-provided cell-phones, and I will not buy a Blackberry cell phone; Company cell phones are the company's way of saying "We own your ass 24/7", and I don't want my co-workers thinking that if I have a Blackberry then that means I'll want to exchange work-related emails at all hours of the night...

    I experimented with a "flex" schedule this summer--40 hours in 4 days. I duly admit that when coming in at 7AM, by about 1-ish I'm not really worth a damn. I'm really just on clock-watch til 5PM. But I did come to the realization that if I can do 40 hours of work in 4 days, why the hell should I have to work 5 days?

    I don't like business lunches or eating casual lunches with certain co-workers. Leaving work under the guise of getting away from work only to talk about work is maddening. Shut up and let me enjoy the food, please!!!

    As a Gymnias Bunnias, if I'm not guaranteed a reasonable amount of outside gym time, I turn into a dysfunctional and outwardly hostile bloated bitch, which isn't always producative. This was the straw that broke the bunny's back for my very first job out of college.

    No one has ever questioned my productivity. My co-workers are actually surprised by how fast I complete tasks. They don't realize that I do my business so fast so I can leave early and have a life. Work-life balance is damn good motivation in my little book. Why the hell would anybody rush to stick around longer and do more work (unless, of course, management is doing the staff review)?

    My boss is actually retiring at the end of the fiscal year, so I don't know if my cozy situation will stand after she's gone and some "hours" Nazi takes over...

  • Gretchen on March 15, 2012 2:48 PM:

    Where I work, people are regularly forced to work 10-12 hours a day. The company offers free fruit in the lunchroom, and discounted gym memberships. They're completely oblivious to the fact that if employees don't have time to take breaks, they won't see the free fruit. And after a 12-hour shift, and facing another 12-hour shift tomorrow, we're not going to the gym to work out. Why don't the employees buy into our wellness campaign?

  • gretchen on March 15, 2012 2:55 PM:

    And management is completely mystified about why its health insurance costs keep going up. It's a mystery!

  • John on March 15, 2012 5:59 PM:

    As I've transitioned from small companies to working for a very large company I find thatarge companies are not very smart about managing employees. I think it has something to do with the tools they have. In a small company every knows each other and they can cooperate to get things done. In a large company power flows down from the CEO through levels of management till it reaches small groups. I feel that upper management only has a rough idea of how things really work. They. An measure hours worked, head count and such and so they use these blunt tools to control the business. It doesn't have to be this way, but that is where we find ourselves now.

  • LLB on March 15, 2012 6:17 PM:

    What progress?

    In other countries, when there's an economic downturn, rather than firing people, everyone keeps their job but works shorter hours. That way they don't have hordes and hordes of unemployed and desperately poor people.

    Gee, if we only did that, it would work out just about right for everyone, wouldn't it?

    What ARE businesspeople in this country using for brains?? And everybody thinks government is bad and we need to privatize everything because "only big business can do things right!"

    I'm moving.

  • Gerry on March 15, 2012 7:38 PM:

    We are up against 2 billion cheap laborers since the fall of communism, add to that automation and more loss of jobs, six sigma and more loss of jobs, and mergers and consolidation and more loss of jobs. Companies have learned to deal with less workers.

    No one can say what widget can be made in our country or in another. We have more income inequality and no upward for over a decade. Some 57,000 factories have closed in a decade or 6 million jobs. The pressure of all this is lowering our incomes or the loss of jobs.

    You need to invest in the country (energy independence, infrastructure, etc.), in the people (mandatory vocational training), and in the future (federal research grants to universities).

    We have lost a lot and it will not be easy to make it up.

  • Bob on March 15, 2012 8:04 PM:

    I remember hearing that Disney employees, during the Eisner years, put a twist on the saying "If you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Monday."

    "If you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday."

    If anything, things have gotten worse than they were in the 1980s and 90s.

  • Eisbaer on March 15, 2012 9:04 PM:

    I'm a lawyer, so I know all about working absurdly long hours every day for weeks (if not months) on end. This sort of enforced workaholicism has long been the rule in big law firms (when I still worked at one, a common joke was to say "half a day?" to anyone who had the unmitigated audacity to go home at a normal hour for whatever reason). At least at BigLaw you get a large paycheck to compensate you for your pains and lack of a life. Sadly, though, it's also common for attorneys at small law firms and among solo practitioners (most of whom make a good bit less than lawyers who work for large law firms). It's even sadder that what I once thought was an unpleasant part of legal practice has become de rigeur in other workplaces.

  • INTJ on March 16, 2012 2:11 PM:

    I think you mean it was Apple, not Microsoft, who had a reputation for working its programmers to the nub and then getting rid of them....

  • INTJ on March 16, 2012 2:19 PM:

    Reports of this "demise" are somewhat exaggerated. Many Americans do tend to work more, particularly the white collar ones, and most have felt the burden of a 40+ week in the face of a poor economy, but the one legacy untouched is that for most laborers, they at least get time-and-a-half for the time over 40 hours (and in California, for every hour past 8 each day), which adds up fast for an employer. Where we must pay attention is to which jobs are covered by the law and which aren't, to make sure people aren't getting titles just to avoid having to pay them overtime, and when "temporary" or "contract" workers become de facto FTE without the corresponding overtime.