All Work And No Pay: The Great Speedup?

I will start this blog post by saying that I once wrote an article on “white collar sweatshops.” I have lamented “overworked Americans.” I implored people to “take back your time.” I used to write about sleep-deprived moms and “the second shift” and all that. Then I discovered the fascinating field of time use, and realized how many of these phrases that are now part of American culture are based on fuzzy impressions, and not on numbers.

So I guess that is my explanation for Monica Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery’s piece over at Mother Jones called “All Work and No Pay: The Great Speedup.” The gist is fair enough. Productivity is way up in America, and GDP is at the same level it was a few years ago, but with millions of fewer workers. Since it’s not clear that there was some breakthrough technology that made us all able to work more efficiently, perhaps these productivity gains are the result of a “speedup” — getting existing employees to work more.

Then, however, we get into the usual screeds about overworked Americans. There are first-hand accounts of over-work. Fine (in a world of 7 billion people you can find anecdotes of anything). And paragraphs like this:

Our best efforts at collective denial notwithstanding, simple arithmetic reveals that even after housewives entered the workforce, the work of housewives still had to be done. Sure, some of it—especially child care—was outsourced, often at rock-bottom wages. But for many women, and a rising (though not yet sufficient) number of men, the second shift awaits each night. And it’s increasingly being joined by a third shift, as we remain digitally tethered to the office in the diminishing hours we’re actually home.

Except it turns out the work of housewives did not still have to be done. In 1965, time diaries revealed that women were spending around 35 hours per week on housework (see Suzanne Bianchi’s work on this in particular). These days, moms with full-time jobs spend closer to 14. Fathers spend close to 9, which is more than they spent in the 1960s, but it is no where close to filling the gap from 1965. When we started working outside the home, we spent less time cleaning it. And that’s fine. Because mothers and fathers are all spending more time with their kids now than in 1965 (putting the lie to that line in the Mother Jones article about people having no family time).

As for the “overwork” part, the BLS’s monthly “Employment Situation” statistics (best known for the unemployment rate) always contains numbers on the average American workweek. In May, it was:

  • private non-farm payrolls: 34.4 hours
  • manufacturing workweek: 40.6 hours; av. overtime 3.2 hours
  • production and non-supervisory employees: 33.6 hours

You can see the weekly work hours broken further down by category here. What we see is that the 40-hour workweek is alive and well.

Moving over to the BLS’s American Time Use Survey, we get confirmation on these numbers. According to the 2009 numbers, released in 2010:

Employed persons worked an average of 7.5 hours on the days they worked… On the days that they worked, employed men worked 56 minutes more than employed women. This difference partly reflects women’s greater likelihood of working part-time. However, even among full-time workers (those usually working 35 hours or more per week), men worked longer than women — 8.3 hours compared with 7.5 hours.

According to the Mother Jones article, “Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn’t solely accounted for by longer hours, of course—worldwide, almost everyone except us has, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time… and paid maternity leave.”

Two thoughts. First, just because we work more doesn’t mean we’re overworked. 7-8 hours sounds like a reasonable full-time work day to me. Sure, there are some people who work more. But John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey’s 1997 book, Time for Life, contained some fascinating research on estimated and logged workweeks. If you ask people to estimate their workweeks, particularly in certain competitive fields, they will give you answers like “80 hours a week.” But Robinson and Godbey showed that comparing estimates to logs had people off by quite a bit. When I got in touch with Robinson as I was writing 168 Hours, he sent me updated numbers, which showed that people claiming to be working 70, 80, 90 hours a week or more were logging less than 60.

Second, I’m glad the authors put “on paper” — because there are plenty of parts of European business culture that are ridiculous. The upsides and downsides of long paid maternity leaves could be its own whole post. I will just say that in many European business cultures, women face a worse glass ceiling than in the US. The idea that the European labor force is some feminist paradise comes from people who haven’t pondered what it would have been like to work for Dominique Strauss-Kahn. As for the right to weekends off, this can have the indirect effect of forcing women out of the workforce; when everything is closed on weekends, you have to do household business during hours of 9-6 M-F, which means that someone in a couple has to not work. There are always trade-offs in life.




2 thoughts on “All Work And No Pay: The Great Speedup?

  1. Interesting post comparing the US and Europe.

    Who is “we”? The time studies you refer to are minimally affected by the demands of professionals. Wal-Mart’s practice of scheduling people for part-time shifts at its convenience is probably more reflected in these numbers than anything else. A wide survey like this does not convince me that engineers, primary care physicians and business consultants are only working 7.5 hr/day.

    I would like to see time use studies of “wait time”. As an engineer, I spent hours waiting for a tool (which costs tens of thousands of dollars in depreciation to operate) to be available, often into the evening. Was this work? Often I could use the time productively, but after a certain amount of waiting, I could not use more time waiting productively. Obstetricians wait for labor. Attorneys wait for their time in court. Business people travel. Most of us consider wait time in our 60 hr work weeks. We must be working, because we’re not at home or doing what we WANT to do.

  2. As someone who has worked in both the manufacturing sector and in academia, I wanted to say that the Great Speedup manifests different in white collar and blue collar labour. As a graduate student participant in student representation, I worked increasing numbers of hours, either for compensation that was frozen and did not reflect increasing living costs, or for no compensation at all because I was told that it would look good on a résumé. As a worker at a plastics factory during the summers, my work week was fixed at forty hours, but I started in 1998 on one machine, and by the time I swore never to go back, last year, I was working on four. I had been at that station for a year because no one else in the factory could keep up with it. In both cases, there was enough work in front of me for three other people, but I was the only one getting paid. The difference was the way in which the misery manifested.

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