Juliet Schor

Time-Poor America

VTR Date: May 18, 1992

Guest: Schor, Juliet


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Juliet Schor
Title: “Time-Poor America”
VTR: 5/18/92

I’m Richard Heffner your host on The Open Mind…and, like many Americans, both richer and poorer than I ever dreamed I would be when I was young: richer in things and so much poorer in time.

Indeed, as a kid in Arizona in the 1930’s, I remember so well how absolutely miraculous it seemed that some luck people were already beginning to stop work at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturdays… the very beginning glimmerings of a brave new world when Americans would eventually have to decide just how to spend all those leisure hours that surely were going to come with a 30 hour or even only a three-day work-week. Supposedly, things would not be in the saddle nor any longer ride mankind. Rather, time would be available for self, for family and friends, for pleasure, for a better, surely more leisurely life.

Not so, however. Instead, over the past generation Americans’ hours at work have become even more extended, even though the still longer-working Japanese characterize us as “lazy”.

All of this, of course, and much, much more is documented by my guest today, Harvard economist Juliet Schor in her widely noted THE OVERWORKED AMERICAN, just published by Basic Books.

Now hungry for things that money can buy—and presumably willing to gain them by working more hours and days each week, and more weeks each year than we have since earlier days in the century—Americans increasingly trade off for them time and leisure and the good life, making us the most time-poor rich people in the modern world, with the exception, of course, of the Japanese … and with the result, as Professor Schor notes, that time-poverty is “straining our very social fabric”, making us enormously vulnerable as a nation in so many ways than we have been willing to admit. But, let me ask now … let me ask my guest what those strains are? What does strain our society?

Schor: I think probably the most serious strain that long hours of work is incurring is on the American family because the growth of women’s labor force participation and the growth in hours for men as well, what we are finding is that parents particularly have much less time to spend with their children and think of all the problems that people … Americans feel are facing the society … a lack of time to be with family is among the, among the most serious.

Heffner: But life involves so many trade-offs. Would you, for one, reject the trade-off that involves women in the work place to the extent that they’re there?

Schor: No I wouldn’t. Certainly not. But, what’s happened is that we have somehow … I think without actually choosing it, in a, in an almost unconscious way … gotten ourselves, as a society, into a situation where the balance between work and family or work and leisure time has gotten out of whack. And part of that is due to women working longer hours. But it’s much more than that. It’s a much longer term problem that we’re looking at and has to do with the whole nexus of choices and I’ll put that in parenthesis … that we’ve made between consumption, leisure time and working hours.

Heffner: Why do you put “choices” in parenthesis?

Schor: Well, I think that what happened in this country is that we stopped thinking about this issue. In the 1920’s there was a very vigorous debate about how long a person should spend in the work place and what is the balance between life outside the job and the job itself? And there, on the one side, were social reformers and trade unionists who argue that we should have a limited quest for material goods and that we should place a high priority on reducing hours of work and using economic progress and productivity increase to do that. On the other side was business, which basically argued that shorter hours were an evil and we should get our sights toward ever larger quantities of material things… consumerism and materialism. And that was a very interesting and important debate and it was a vigorous and real one. There were real options in the 1920’s. And what happened was since then that, that debate really dropped off the national agenda completely, so that at the end of the second World War we were not questioning as a society how we should use the prosperity that, that stood in front of us, in a sense. And rather than make real choices about how to use productivity increases, how to use prosperity whether we should use it to give ourselves more time, or we should use it to produce more things, we in a very unconscious way I think, just went down the path of “things”, of consumerism. So in the last 40 years we ended up more than doubling the amount that we consumed on a per capita basis in this country. But we lost leisure time. And that brave new world that you talked about, something that everyone thought would happen… didn’t because we failed to understand the sort of unconscious choices that we were making.

Heffner: Yes, but again, you say “unconscious” choices. Couldn’t the people you write about now, by and large, make a choice not to live for spending. What was the … what was the something in … it was the New Yorker or someplace that said this slogan in California, somebody saw it … not quite on a license plate, but a bumper sticker “I shop so that I am”.

Schor: laughter

Heffner: This is under our control, isn’t it?

Schor: Yes and no. I’d like to step back from the shopping for a minute to talk about where I think the whole … what I call the cycle of work and spend starts. Because I think to start with the whole … what I call the cycle of work and spend starts. Because I think to start with the spending is in a sense getting it backwards. My view of it is that we have set up an economy in which we have strong incentives on the part of the employee to keep people at work for long hours. So there’s a … at the very beginning a strong bias from the perspective of the firm … the employer to require long hours of work. Let me just give one example, and I think the most important source of bias in the economy today and that’s the way we pay fringe benefits. Because they’re paid on a per person basis … medical insurance, pension benefits, etc. it behooves the employer to have smaller numbers of people working long hours because then the employer has to pay far fewer medical benefits because they’re paid on a per person basis. If the government took over health insurance or if we had it on a per hour basis, then we should see much less resistance on the part of employers for people to work shorter hours. So what we have now is a … we’re in the middle of a recession and we see employers asking one set of workers to put in overtime and work long hours and laying off another set, at the same time. And the reason, a big part of the reason for this inequity is this incentive because of the way the benefits are paid. So what happens every year is that the productivity increase, which is created … which creates the opportunity for either more in common consumption or more free time is then, in a sense, under the control of the employer, who doles it out in the form of added income, never offers the worker the alternative which is shorter hours. So the worker takes that fatter pay-check and goes out and pretty much just spends it, gets acclimated to that level of spending and gets, in a sense, habituated to a yearly increment and so the next year, when the productivity increase comes again, the firm also passes it out, and never offers the opportunity for shorter hours, and in fact sets up tremendous barriers for people who would be interested in shorter hours.

Heffner: Now, what percentage of the people who earn a living in this country fall into the category of “I’m … I have the impact upon me of an employer”? What percentage do you think really are affected in the way you describe?

Schor: Well, very small percentages of workers say they have the option to shift their hours within their jobs. So that is they … most can neither work more hours or fewer hours, they’re pretty much set with the number of hours that the employer gives them. Obviously, self-employed people one might think have a little bit of leeway, but as some people may know, the economic pressures on the self-employed are, are often the most extreme and so we see very long hours with the self-employed just to, just to make it. So, if your question is “who has the option to, to work the number of hours that they want”? You can always change jobs and that is the primary way that people who want to change their hours actually do so. But, part of the problem with that is there are not many jobs around which offer the opportunity to work shorter hours without very substantial penalties in terms of income and long-term promotion possibilities.

Heffner: But you see, what puzzles me, when you initially say “choice” with quotation marks around it, you seem to be ignoring the ability of the self-employed, or the academic, or the doctor, the lawyer to make the choice of fewer luxuries, fewer of the things that we may even today consider necessities, in order to have that time with the family, in order to … not to impact so negatively upon our family life. And yet, we don’t do that.

Schor: Well, the reason I put the “choice” in quotation marks is that I think to a large extent these are social choices. And the individual has some, some degree of choice, but it is limited. For example, the pressure of the culture of the work-place. Now I’m a person for whom longer or shorter hours of work doesn’t have much material consequence …I don’t get paid more or less and certainly people in some of these occupations that you talked about might also be in that situation. But the culture of the work-place creates a strong pressure to work long hours. And one is in a sense going very much against the grain in many of these professions that you mentioned. Now for some people that … people in managerial jobs, for example, trying to go against the culture and work shorter hours will have very, very, adverse consequences because often times these days one’s promotion possibilities or even the opportunity to keep a job is based in part on just showing up and, and the symbolism of being at the office for long hours. That’s the way the corporate culture works today, and it’s unfortunate, I think, that we have equated long hours with productive. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but that’s, that’s the way people are rewarded to a large extent in our culture. The people … the lawyer at the, you know, at the corporate law firm, who wants to work the shorter hours has a, has a very serious uphill battle to fight. Of course, we see it to a large extent in the struggles that many women professionals are having to avoid the very long hours and, you know, try and get, regain some kind of balance between family and work. But I think it’s even more difficult for men because there is no social sanctioning for men at all to say “I’d like shorter hours, I want to be with my family”. There is a small group of people doing what has been called in the popular press “downshifting” … which is they are going out of the really high paid, glamour jobs with the very long hours to live a simpler life. And those people certainly … as I said you can change jobs and get, get more flexibility in your hours … but I think we have to remember that the number of people who are high enough up to really take a big, big jump in the occupational ladder is small. We’ve got a pyramid as far as jobs go. So, there are many people at the bottom who don’t have very far to shift down, I think who would also like shorter hours, but have very little opportunity.

Heffner: Do you see any way out of this cycle, whether you call it “work and spend” or something else?

Schor: I do actually. I think part of the problem is, is that we are not giving ourselves the option to forego consumption that we haven’t yet experienced. So, it’s very hard to give up what we already have, but many people say they’re willing to forego an additional level, an additional increment of consumption or income, for example, in order to get time off. So I think one of the most powerful things that we could do as a society is require companies to give people some options as far as working hours go, if they’re willing to trade off the income for it. So, in the same way the people the opportunity to participate in a company savings plan, or a variety of fringe benefit kind of programs, companies could offer them the option to trade off income for vacation days or shorter work day or to save up, over the years to get a sabbatical every five or six the way academics have, something like that. There’s a whole range of ways that people would like to take additional time off, and they say very strongly now that they are willing to give up income for it.

Heffner: Added income, not what they have?

Schor: Well. Interestingly for the first time now … since the book was written there have been a couple of polls which show that people are now even willing to give up current income. I think this is a measure of how overworked and kind of stressed out Americans are feeling and how much they’re questioning the choices that, that we as a society have made. 70% of people earning $30,000 a year or more say they would be willing to give up one day’s pay a week in order to get an additional day off. Now that’s, that’s striking … that’s a 20% decline in, in income. But I think it is a measure of how, how stretched people are feeling.

Heffner: There was a time, 10, 15 years ago when there was a feeling that young people, at that time, were going to manage their lives differently. As I look at my son’s friends now and their lives, that’s clearly not the case, they’re working just as hard, or harder, longer hours.

Schor: Right. I think if you look at the kind of long-term trend of people’s values and attitudes towards these things what you see is a movement towards a kind of quality of life, value, and quality of life rather than income. With the exception of the 1980’s which was a, a kind of throw-back in a sense, a period of intense interest in income and these very long working hours and these … the kind of yuppie syndrome that we heard a lot about. I actually think the 90’s is the beginning of a, a return to that sort of late 60’s, early 70’s anti-materialist trend. So I think what we will begin to see more of, and I’m starting to see it a little bit in survey data is less willingness to put in those very long hours and more willingness to take kind of reduced expectations in terms of income growth.

Heffner: It’s interesting before you indicated that you would not make the magical equation between more hours and greater productivity. That’s important, isn’t it and may explain why there are those who call us “lazy” … because we may be working longer hours, but we’re not producing more, presumably.

Schor: Right. I think if you look historically whenever workers asked for shorter hours in the struggle to get the 12, 10, and the 8 hour days, business always countered with the idea that this would bankrupt them, that this was not economically possibly and they were …there was always a kind of hysteria on the part of business against the declines in working hours. But in every case what we saw is that in fact productivity continued to rise, and in many of these cases the reduction of hours themselves caused an increase in productivity because people were freed from these very arduous and fatiguing schedules and by …. In, in shorter number of hours they were actually able to work more, they could sustain a higher pace. And certainly that’s what all the evidence on weekly hours shows that decline from 40 hours down to say 35 ours likely to be associated with a more productive worker, both because of … for morale reasons, if people are, are given same amount of money, but allowed to work shorter hours, they tend to be more willing to give to the firm and because they are just physically able to do more in a shorter number of hours. But what we’ve done is the same thing that the Japanese have done … we’ve, we’ve made the same mistake they’ve made which is to extend hours of work and thereby reduce overall productivity. The Japanese government has now recognized that the excessive work hours of Japan are a source of economic problems and part of why their production continues to be lower than American productivity; the, the level of productivity in Japan is still lower. And they are trying to reduce their hours. I think it’s unfortunate in this country that most people feel that what we should try to do is emulate the Japanese,

Heffner: It’s true. I mean that’s, that’s what one hears whether it’s educationally or in terms of the … industrial practices. As a good economic determinist, you seem to put a great deal upon practices of industry, practices of the market places and what could be done to change those, and you mentioned before that perhaps a different kind of basis or insurance … for health insurance, for instance, for other benefits might bring about a shift.

Schor: Right. I mean we now already there’s a crisis in the financing of healthcare in this country and there’s, there’s ample reason to change the current structure even without this…the tie-in to working hours. But the tie in to working hours has been very important because what happens is that workers, there are strong pressures on the part of companies to keep workers working very long hours and to avoid hiring new workers. So it creates both an overwork problem for the people who are on the job and that problem then leads to stress and job related illnesses and stress-related illnesses. The level of stress related illnesses is, is really exploding in this country. And at the same time an unemployment problem because it prevents workers from getting jobs.

Heffner: So what do you foresee? What do you see as you look into the crystal ball?

Schor: When I was writing the book I would say I was not very optimistic, and…

Heffner: You can say that again…

Schor: (Laughter)

Heffner: … and again.

Schor: (Laughter) I actually put in a statistic … I guess on one of my more pessimistic days which said “if current trends continue, we’ll be up to the 60 hour week” , we’ll be back … you know it will be like living in Dickens’ England … I think I said something like that. And the reason to be pessimistic and to, to think that current trends may continue is that I think business has not been very enlightened on this and is still in the mindset that it needs to push workers ever harder and pay them ever less. And we have, you know, we have a … I think a, a thoughts by some corporate executives in this country that because we’re competing with the Brazilians and the Koreans, and the Indians, that the workers … that the wages of the American worker may have to fall to those levels and the working hours may have to rise and the level of exploitation, if you want to call it that, have to increase to, to compete on a world scale. So, you know, I see this as a very backward attitude on the part of corporate America. And that’s what makes me pessimistic. On the other hand, since I’ve written the book, and since it’s come out, I have been really surprised by the extent to which individuals out there … just ordinary people are, are in a sense validating the premise of the book and the reception to the book has been so tremendous, I get so many letters and calls and there are a lot of people out there who are very unhappy about the, the way we are living and working. And are … were very much touched by the message of the book. And that gives me hope.

Heffner: But you know, when I first read The Overworked American and noted the sub-title The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, I wondered whether unexpected was an accurate characterization in terms of what we know about ourselves and what we know really about the history of this country in terms of technological advances, in terms of the development of, of goods and services that we could avail ourselves of in return for more work, in return for less time?

Schor: Well, I think we thought we could have it all.

Heffner: Yes.
Schor: (Laughter) In the sense that we, we saw unbounded prosperity. I mean someone sitting in 1950, for example, or just after the Second … you know a few years after the Second World War, thinking about the future of this country, once that kind of initial pessimism about the Depression was over we saw the possibility for endless prosperity, and we saw automation and technological change as being so powerful as to eliminate work. I mean, I think even when I was young we had that vision of the person-less factory, and there was one guy there who pressed the button, and then the stuff just started, you know, falling off the assembly line. You know really, what’s ironic … we, of course, didn’t get that future. What’s ironic I think is that Europe in a way has, because they have been able to have it all. They have gotten tremendous increases in income and also fantastic increases in leisure time. The latest figures that I looked at for the German workers show they’re working 9 fewer hours a week than, than American workers. That’s on a 40 hour week, 360 fewer hours a year. It’s phenomenal. But we have, I think we have a whole series of inefficiencies and kind of social irrationalities in this country that are absent in a place like Germany, for example, which allow them to have achieved the future that we dreamed of for ourselves.
Heffner: I guess the answer is to be at the losing end of a battle and the answer is not to be as wealthy as we were. But your, your … as we come to the end of the program … I gather you would strike a much more optimistic note about understanding what this lack of leisure time has done to our family structure, other aspects of our lives.
Schor: Yeah, I think understanding is a good word because I think with this particular issue half the battle is won by just realizing where we are, and I think this was the problem in this country that … and this is why I did use the word “unexpected” in the title. We ended up increasing working hours without realizing it was even happening and so we can step back now at the end of this 20 years of increasing time and having realized, realized what, what has occurred I think we are now finally in a position to address the problem.
Heffner: To achieve understanding Juliet Schor, then all we have to do is have our audience read The Overworked American. Thanks so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.
Schor: Thank you.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.