Out of Touch


Apparently I’m out of touch with most of my fellow countrymen. According to a recent study (pdf) most Americans think working 40 hours per week is “part-time”.

I consider anyone who puts about 30+ hours in per week to be full-time. Anything that involves more than three 8 hour shifts is definitely a large part of someone’s week, not small enough to be considered part-time in my mind. And it’s deserving of the benefits most full-time employees enjoy like paid sick leave, vacation time, and access to company retirement plans and healthcare options.

But I must be considered loopy by the typical American corporate employee. Because evidently now people who work five 8-hour shifts per week are considered slackers. I guess that means five 10 or 12-hour shifts is considered average. And to be a “hard worker” you must have to get up to six or seven 10-14 hour shifts in a week.

One thing this study brings out, which is consistent with my limited corporate experience, is that talk about work-life balance and programs by companies to help their employees in their personal lives serve about the same purpose as the landscaping around their corporate offices. They are highly-visible, managed by a disinterested out-sourced contractor, and are just there for show and not to actually be put to any use. From the study:

Why don’t professionals who want to reduce their hours use one of the many work-life programs that offer “flexibility” through reduced hours and flexible work arrangements? Researchers have documented that these “part-time” professionals may be seen as “time deviants” who face what has been called the “flexibility stigma.” Promotions vanish, as does superstar status. Lawyers who reduce their hours find themselves consigned to inside offices, given rote assignments, left out of key meetings. Explains one, “[Going part-time] has destroyed [my career] for all intents and purposes. It has completely, utterly, and irreversibly altered my future, my practice, my finances, my reputation, my relationships, and my friendships.”

Many women lawyers report feeling similarly undervalued, which makes sense, given that “part-time” lawyers often take an immediate wage cut of 20 percent per hour for a “part time” schedule of 40 hours a week.


I feel bad for people trapped in this who want to get out or slow down a bit or dedicate more time to their personal growth or spending time with family.

Reading the opinions expressed in the study is genuinely shocking to me. I understand there are work-a-holics here and there who truly love their work and getting things done. I applaud them and marvel at their happy productivity. But can we really demand that a majority of the work-force make earning money the center of their lives? It seems like a poisonous culture that could cause far, far more harm than good. Employees will suffer from stress and anguish. Children will suffer from not seeing their parents. Neighborhoods and communities will suffer from having nobody with any remaining energy to do anything but earn the money to pay their property taxes.

I wish professionals would stand up and say, “40 hours is enough.”

Another aspect of this problem, though, is that it’s not some greedy plantation owner driving his serfs to push and push and push. But rather, the pressure to put in more and more hours comes from the employees themselves as they push and compete with one another.

I try to talk sense into them whenever I’m able to temporarily befriend people with such beliefs. Occasionally I’ll bump into them on the train, or at a party, or at some school-related event I attended because of an interest of mine. Instead of giving admiration when I hear stories about themselves or their colleagues who have been putting in 60 hour weeks, I offer my condolences and wishes that they’ll be able to slow down soon to a more sensible schedule. They try to explain that that’s the norm and that anyone who wants to work at their firm had best be prepared to put in such hours and if they’re lucky, and make partner one day, they could possibly cut down to 40 hour weeks as they approach retirement. I just shrug my shoulders, “Well I couldn’t possibly live a balanced, healthy life putting in more than 40 hours a week for years on end. And that’s as a single guy. If I had kids I expect that number would drop to 30 or 35 at most.”

But they just think I’m eccentric and idealistic and that I’ll change my mind as soon as I “have a mortgage and family” (Never-mind that I already own a house and never had to bother with a mortgage).

I guess I just have to resign myself to standing back and watching the whole affair unravel. Perhaps soon some companies will go from having an unwritten rule that employees have to put in 60 hour weeks, to codifying it into the terms of employment. Instead of complaining about their 9-5er people will start grumbling about their 8-8er.

In the meantime I suppose I will just have to watch from the sidelines and try to enjoy the high rents and dividends put out by this great thirst to be heralded as “harder working” than the next guy.

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  1. Chenda
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Its aweful! Though your right, peer pressure is a far stronger force in making people work more than trying to mandate it through contracts. Its not surprising the reports argues that overworking is acutally making firms more and more uncompetative.

    So Mike, any news on house number 2 ?

  2. Jasper
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I always wonder how a harsh workload and lifestyle affects one’s political views. If you’re killing yourself at work and hate your life, how sympathetic are you going to be to other people’s problems.

    Polls show that non-union workers resent the benefits unionized workers have, but this doesn’t mean they go out and try to get unionized. If anything, it means they vote for politicians who are against unions. A similar animosity exists towards government workers, I guess because they enjoy a modicum of job security (for better or worse).

  3. Posted July 21, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    @jasper Right! Misery loves company.

    @chenda No news yet on #2 looks like things might not get going for another month or two. Just a matter of time.