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The Overworked American.

The Overworked American. Juliet Schor. Basic, $23. To listen to the caged experts the television networks keep in inventory to explicate the truth, the only butt-hustling hard-chargers on the face of the planet are the Japanese. Americans are lectured on their softness, sloth, and indolence. But Harvard economist Juliet Schor doesn't think that sounds quite right. Her book confirms that, in America, the 40-hour work week is an institution that disappeared into history about the time those old-fashioned, tailfinned automobiles were being driven onto the used car lots. It is an exasperating anomaly that in a time of painful unemployment, millions of Americans are overworked, though not always overpaid.

Schor's computations show that the work week and work year have been lengthening for a generation, confirming what many of us know from our own lives and those of our friends: A lot of people are close to working until they drop. "In return for a seventies' standard of living, employers are now demanding far more hours," Schor writes. For the production and nonsupervisory employees who make up 80 percent of the labor force, these demands have been substantial. According to our calculations, just to reach their 1970 standard of living, they must work 245 more hours, or six-plus extra weeks a year." If you count taking care of the house and children, many women may be using cosmetics not to look pretty, but to cover up the fatigue lines. Theirs is a life of little or no leisure, a surprising end to the century that social scientists had forecast would see the coming of a leisure glut. In the fifties and sixties, some wondered what Americans would do with their time in the decades to come. Now we know: They work.

So far so good with Schor, but after ably stating the facts, her analytical engine develops some serious vibrations, if it does not altogether disintegrate. She deserves praise for breaking off the chains of her profession, which too often sees people as one-dimensional caricatures, a practice that renders her calling not only dismal, but often nearly useless. She uses culture, history, and motivations beyond that of the cash nexus-a rare breadth among economists-to make her argument. She unapologetically injects moral values into her discussion, thereby also separating herself from many of her colleagues who make it a point of pride to withhold opinions about the rights and wrongs of things. The Overworked American is a book so serious and sincere, so self-evidently written to help, one is reluctant to criticize it.


The book is all over the lot. Several chunks of it are given over to a discussion of leisure in ancient Rome and medieval Europe, where Schor maintains people had more free time. Yet the rise of capitalism, she says, has stripped this from modem society. She would have us believe that the ancient Romans, unlike us moderns, chose leisure over an overworked, exhausted, materialism. Yes indeed, ancient Rome had many more play days than we have today, but, slavery aside, leisure was more a burden than a blessing. The Roman people, housed in vast neighborhoods of five- and six-story, fire-prone tenements without running water or indoor plumbing, were almost as combustible in their leisure as in their habitations. With little or no work, the idle plebeian swarm, kept only half-pacified by government bread-and-circus welfare programs, were forever on the verge of mob action. Roman citizens used that leisure time Schor speaks of for rioting.

"The lives of ordinary people in the Middle Ages or ancient Greece and Rome may not have been easy, or even pleasant, but they certainly were leisurely," Schor writes. The same could be said of the lives of today's inner-city African-American youths.

Schor makes these comparisons with the past in order to indict capitalism for a structural bias" in favor of work over play or free time. She is not a happy capitalist camper. Perhaps she is right, but "capitalism" is one of those vague expressions like "human nature," which Schor also uses, that leave her argument open to a sea of interpretations.

Suffice it to say, her anticapitalist excursions belong in another book, because in this one they detract from her presentation and bait the reader into arguing with her, as when she declares that Henry Ford's introduction of the moving assembly line was intended to discipline labor. Without detracting from Ford's achievement, one can say that the flow-through manufacturing approach was a long time in development in other businesses, where the best organization of work was also part of the story of industrial invention.

She then attacks Ford for paying assembly-line workers five dollars a day, or 40 to 60 percent more than other manufacturers did in 1914. The extra money compelled them to be punctual, energetic, and obedient, Schor writes, as though Henry had pulled a fast one on society by this trick-imagine, paying people more money to work longer hours.

She gets back on firmer ground when she asserts that businesses are in a position to demand longer hours from their employees with or without raising their salaries during times of less than full employment. Pointing out that government statistics minimize apparent unemployment, thereby reducing pressures to do something about it, she heads toward a fertile field of inquiry but stops short of exploring it for us. Instead, Schor chooses to rail at the consumer society in all its manifestations, and I do mean all. By her reckoning, home appliances have saved no labor or toil because her figures tell her that women do the same amount of housework now-about 50 hours a week-as they did at the turn of the century. Speaking of everything from the vacuum cleaner to the dishwasher, Schor declares, "All this expensive laborsaving technology was an abject failure.... Only one major appliance has been shown to save significant amounts of time (the microwave oven). Some actually increase housework (freezers and washing machines)."

Only a professor of economics could print such nonsense. Go down any street and tell the inhabitants to get rid of their washing machines but keep their microwaves, and see what happens. The crux of this argument is that Americans wash themselves, their clothes, and their houses too often, thereby negating the benefits from these machines: "Laundry provides the best example of how technology failed to reduce the labor time. . . . The escalation for standards of laundering has been a long process, stretching back to colonial times. In those days, washing would be done once a month at most and, in many families, much less-perhaps four times per year. Nearly everyone wore dirty clothes nearly all the time. Slowly the frequency of washing rose. When the electric washer was introduced (1925), many Americans enjoyed a clean set of clothes (or at least a fresh shirt or blouse) every Saturday night. By the fifties and sixties we washed after one wearing." Our choice, according to the professor, is between head lice and exhaustion. The dismal science has now discovered the leisure-cootie curve. As you move up the graph toward more leisure, you move down toward cooties. At long last, we now know who or what lived in Karl Marx's beard.

What the professor advocates is trading more leisure for less money. The money isn't doing anything for us, she insists. "We do know that the increasing consumption of the last 40 years has not made us happier. The percentage of the population who reported being very happy' peaked in 1957, according to two national polls." If such stuff is to pass for evidence, the intellectual rigor once associated with the name of Harvard University is a thing of the past. Moreover, the opinion that material goods only serve to make us unhappy and unworthy is one usually held by people relatively rich in the self-same goods. Methinks I hear the voice of the comfortable, Volvo-riding society of Cambridge, Massachusetts, talking here. Any reasonably stout definition of individual liberty will allow each person to decide whether to absent himself from "the insidious cycle of work and spend."

But," writes Schor, plunging ever forward, couldn't one just as well gain happiness by reducing desires? This is the Zen' path to happiness. It warns that hedonistic pleasures are shallow and addictive. It asks for renunciation, not necessarily of material goods, but of materialism." Without being snotty about it, it's hard to know what to make of such sentiments. Schor, a trained social scientist, is way over her head, apparently unfamiliar with what philosophy from the pre-Socraties on has made of these questions. It is embarrassing to the reader who is on her side, who sympathizes with what she believes, but who is saddened by her lack of preparation.

The book ends with a discussion of ways to lessen the hours of work. Heaven knows, that would be a blessing for many, especially all those folks working two jobs. But she doesn't talk about them. She seems to think that most people breaking their backs 10 or 12 hours a day on the job are materialistic piggy-wiggies.

Not that everybody putting in tong days at the office is working rather than simply taking up space. If bluecollar, labor union featherbedding has mostly been stamped out, white-collar featherbedding in government and private sector corporations seemingly goes on, even in recessionary times, though perhaps on a diminished scale.

Regardless of that, Schor pushes for a cutback in working time, although she knows "there would be hard-core resisters. This country has plenty of workaholics-people for whom work is an escape, an obsession, or, if they have nothing better to do, the default option, and who will not be interested in my proposal. There are others for whom money is everything, who will avail themselves of almost any opportunity to make a few more bucks. Or those who will sell their souls to the highest-paying job they can find-regardless of its working hours, stress level, effect on their family life, or social implications." Do you catch a whiff of the notion that work is a form of sickness, mental illness, or moral turpitude?

Again, the view is from Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Knox County, Maine, where I live and where people sell, not their souls, but their labor for food, shelter, and clothing. This book's snobby, impractical, out-of-touch passages validate the dismissive criticisms made about university professors. Of course, Cambridge has been putting on superior spiritual airs since the time of Brook Farm, but Juliet Schor seems to have little knowledge of her country. Hers seems to be the indignation of the sheltered life.

Business managers in charge of organizations doing things of extraordinary complexity may find Schor's idea of how to shorten the working week difficult to put into effect. One is baffled trying to figure how one would run an airplane or diesel engine factory with her versions of flex-time. Perhaps Harvard's Department of Economics can be run according to Zen, but one doubts it can be run well.

In the end, one puts this book down wondering if it will count toward getting the author tenure-a lifetime job specially suited for resisting the temptation to sell one's soul or succumb to the obsessive-addictive seduction of long, stress-filled days on the job.

-Nicholas von Hoffman
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Author:von Hoffman, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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