Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Can We Finally Shrink Our Working Hours?

An article in the latest issue of The Atlantic has been getting a lot of attention lately.  It is "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," by Princeton professor and recent State Department director Anne-Marie Slaughter. 

I liked it more than expected.  I had anticipated a diatribe on how women are being cheated by having a lower average income and lower representation in the highest-ranking positions, while being impeded in raising children, while getting little help at home by choosing only men with similar or higher income as life partners (see my letter to the New York Times from ten years ago - http://nytimes.com/2002/04/12/opinion/L12DOWD.html , fourth letter down), and hanging on to the idea that men and women have identical brain arrangements and behavioral and cognitive tendencies - in other words, to blame men for women not being both protected and given not only equal rights but preferential treatment.  I found no such thing.  I saw nothing anti-male at all. 

Slaughter's thesis could be condensed into two points.  First, as it now stands women are never going to reach the statistical achievement levels of men, since they want to be (and to a great extent NEED to be) much more involved with their children, a situation which cannot be completely solved by having a helpful husband.  Second, the solution is for employers to stop requiring large numbers of extra hours, allow more flexible work arrangements, and honestly encourage people, of both sexes, to spend more time with their families.  She also mentioned that "the pursuit of happiness" has become something many hardworking people have found they have lost, and said that men now in their twenties, even at the highest career levels, want more extra time in their lives.

In Work's New Age I gave only one small section to the idea of shorter work hours as a jobs-crisis solution, the main problem with that being employer-based health care, which as a huge per-worker expense encourages job providers to get the most out of each individual employee, thereby paying less for four people working 60 hours per week than for six people putting in 40.  Since then I have felt more strongly about it. 

The case for shorter hours in Why Women Still Can't Have It All works well for men as well.  I speak from experience, when for 15 years of my corporate career I had a sideline business, which consumed 20 to 25 weekly hours on top of my full-time management obligations.  I succeeded, largely because I controlled the times of day (or, usually, night) I worked on the business, and kept it entirely away from my regular job.  Still, I did not directly control the amount of time it took - many a day included a rough 8 or 9 hours in the office, after which I came home to 5 or 6 hours of business work that could not wait.  With many coworkers conspicuously putting in 60 or 65 hours on their main jobs alone, I had no choice but to learn a tremendous amount about efficiency, which became a subject of my professional speeches years later.  Overall, I maintained high performance reviews and an excellent reputation.  One of my bosses told me that he didn't worry about my working usually only 7 to 4, since I got more done in 40 hours than others did in 20 more.  Not all people in similar situations, though, whether limited by children, business efforts, Shabbat or other religious restrictions, or other extensive side projects and obligations, would be allowed to get through as successfully.  When my corporate career wound down I had no feeling that the number of hours I worked was a significant factor, but for many others, especially in billable-hours settings, it would be. 

Can we reduce the amount of time those working spend on the job?  This once-stock future prediction, and subject of the trite-and-true observation that nobody on his deathbed ever wished he'd spent more time in the office, may come to pass someday.  I recommend it, and hope you do too.  As Slaughter also said, "we will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek."

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