The Burden of Professional Work in the United States

Ostensibly about gender roles and the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, a recent New York Times essay. entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled” is, at its core, an indictment of boomer leadership, political institutions and corporations in 21st century America.

During the 1920s, hours worked for pay in the U.S. had “stabilized at about 49 hours a week:”

[The “new economic gospel of consumption”] proclaimed that new consumption could keep the economy eternally dynamic. Spokesmen for this new gospel opposed labor’s efforts and offered alternatives to increased leisure such as an improved standard of living, consumerism, and steady work. Those who supported the shorter hour cure for unemployment had a different view. They supported labor’s call for “progressive shortening of the hours of labor,” believing with labor that this would help to control unemployment and shape the direction of industry; limiting surpluses, encouraging the production of basic needs, and discouraging “luxuries.”

In 1933, 80 years ago, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would have limited the work week to 30 hours. The rationale: rampant unemployment. It took another five years before Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a national 40 hour work week.

What does the work week look like in the U.S. today?

According to Stephanie Coontz in her New York Times essay:

“Today, almost 40 percent of men in professional jobs work 50 or more hours a week, as do almost a quarter of men in middle-income occupations… As of 2000, the average dual-earner couple worked a combined 82 hours a week, while almost 15 percent of married couples had a joint workweek of 100 hours or more.”

The Federal Reserve, hardly a bastion of liberal research, reported in 2004 that we worked “50 percent more than do the Germans, French, and Italians.” (Only economists believe that marginal tax rates account for this difference. Do you know anyone who says to herself, “If I work one more hour this week, I’ll get to take home only (Y-x)% of it instead of Y% of it?” Especially since most people working more than 40 hours a week are not paid by the hour nor have agency when it comes to how many hours they work!)

With only anecdotal evidence to support that claim, I’d argue that the change in number of hours worked reflects:

1. The reduced percentage of jobs in the U.S. economy that are union labor,
2. The increased percentage of jobs that are knowledge work contrasted with hourly (punch-the-clock) labor and,
3. Relatively fewer hours of paid leave (vacation, sick, parental, family) especially when compared with other industrialized nations.

Somewhere in here we have to include the demand for usury-like profit margins — a transition that happened in the ’80s and ’90s — as a factor as well.

In other words, the argument put forth at the turn of the last century – that the economy depends on consumption – has been fully integrated into our collective psyche. Just look at the conspicuous consumption depicted in ads and in celebrity endorsements. Look at what graces the pages of fashion magazines — that certainly ties back to the essay that prompted this post.

The issues raised in Coontz’s essay should be an important part of the debate on quality of life in America. Don’t let the word “gender” in the headline keep you from reading it.

Guest contributor Kathy E. Gill, awriter, speaker, educator, & digital evangelist, has 20 years experience in digital media. Since 2003, she has taught at the University of Washington. A political junkie, her consulting work includes almost five years writing about U.S. politics for, one of the top ten visited Web content sites on the Internet. When she is not at the keyboard, she might be exploring on her Ducati or in a parking lot teaching newbies how to ride motorcycles! Kathy also writes the blog Wired Pen.  You can follow her on Twitter at @kegill.

Image via iStockphoto/Elene Elisseeva

  • You speak the truth. As a fifty-something, this is not where I thought I would be. As the owner of my own business, Technology has not reduced our burden, it has added to it. In my first job as a writer in the late ’70s I wrote something, then it went to an editor, and then to a typesetter, and then to a paste-up/designer, etc.. and then it came back to me for a final go-over. Everything seemed a lot slower before faxes and instant communication. A sure sign of getting older is that I’m waxing philosophically about the old days and something we used to call “lunch….”

  • Hi, Bernadine – thanks for your comments. The beginning of the info speed up was actually the telegraph. 🙂

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