Can’t Have It All? Blame Our Extreme Work Culture

All-encompassing jobs don't just rob us of family time, they kill productivity too

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Every high-level professional woman who reads Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much discussed article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” is bound to have a personal story that intersects with that of the author. For me, it was the time I spent as a foreign correspondent in Europe, where I also had my two children, now ages 5 and 9. You’d think such a peripatetic life would be a terrible way to be a working mom. In fact, it was great. I covered economics and business rather than politics and breaking news, a choice carefully thought out to minimize totally unpredictable travel. I often worked strange hours, responding to the queries of editors in a different time zone, in New York City, but being online at midnight also meant that I could juggle my schedule to have plenty of morning time and after-school time with my kids. Face time was irrelevant — after all, news never happened in the office. In her piece, Slaughter quotes former Bush assistant Mary Matalin as saying, “Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.” I’d have to agree.

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The trouble is that jobs that allow you both control and upward mobility are still quite rare. And as the labor market bifurcates between high and low, they are becoming ever more rare. A famous piece of research by the Columbia University economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett done in 2006 looked at the rise of “extreme jobs,” requiring 73 hours a week or more of work. According to her study, about 45% of managers in top multinational corporations had them; 60% of those folks, predictably, didn’t take most of their vacation. As Hewlett put it: “Driven by globalization and always-on technology, increasing amounts of upper-echelon workers are giving huge amounts of their hearts and minds to the job.”

(MORE: Sylvia Ann Hewlett: Is a Woman in Brazil Better Off than a Woman in the U.S.?)

It’s no surprise that 73 hours a week, even done flexibly, are incompatible not only with family life, but also with anything else (that’s an important point, because the debate over work-life balance shouldn’t be just about how to have a career and be a mom — or dad for that matter — but also how to have a top job and still remain a human being). What’s more surprising is that it may also be incompatible with maximum productivity. A number of surveys show that working longer doesn’t necessarily mean working better (Slaughter cites a couple of them in her piece). In Germany, where labor-productivity rates are only a bit less than in the U.S. (and the economy prior to the euro crisis was more robust), workers spend about 80% of the time on the job that Americans do. For Germans, doing the job well is what matters; face time is less important. Indeed, a German executive a few years back once commented to me that “if you are at work past 6 p.m., there’s something wrong with you” (meaning, you simply aren’t being efficient enough). I can say personally that on the days when I know I need to be home for dinner, I work harder. On the days when I can leave at 10 p.m., I’m revving up more slowly.

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It’s a truism that work expands to fit the time you give it. Indeed, the economic gains made in both the U.S. and Europe over the past two decades have been two-thirds productivity related and only one-third down to working more hours. Germans have managed to raise productivity substantially with much less increase in overall working hours. That’s in part because German workers have much, much more control over their circumstances than Americans do. Labor representatives sit on the boards of most major German companies. Their relationship with management is more collaborative than contentious. They work together to figure out ways to keep productivity up while not killing people. As for the U.S., economists believe that white collar workers simply don’t have any more productivity gains to give. About half of the top-tier executives in Hewlett’s study worked so hard during the day that they arrived home “speechless,” literally incapable of further interaction. Which must be rather hard on spouses and children.

I have to wonder, though, whether America may be at a tipping point with its culture of extreme work. It’s one thing to have an unrelenting Protestant work ethic when there are disproportionate gains to be had — as there were in the U.S. (relative to other rich countries) in the precrisis years of 1991 to 2008. But increasingly, we are becoming Europe. Our trend growth is slowing. Our unemployment rate is at European-style highs. By force or by choice, younger people entering the labor market today are considering a life that’s not all about work. They are also increasingly making their own schedules, starting their own businesses and thinking about work in a much more holistic, flexible way. It’s a welcome and necessary change. As Slaughter makes so clear in her piece, we’ve gone as far as we can go — personally and economically — with old-style corporate culture. It’s time for something that works better.

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