Update (9/3/2015): The US economy has roared back since the Great Recession, but many employees are grappling with the same overwhelming crush of work that was a hallmark of the downturn. The phenomenon has fueled an extraordinary rise in corporate revenues, but it has also stretched workers to the breaking point. Here’s why:
On a bright spring day in a wisteria-bedecked courtyard full of earnest, if half-drunk, conference attendees, we were commiserating with a fellow journalist about all the jobs we knew of that were going unfilled, being absorbed or handled “on the side.” It was tough for all concerned, but necessary—you know, doing more with less.
“Ah,” he said, “the speedup.”
His old-school phrase gave form to something we’d been noticing with increasing apprehension—and it extended far beyond journalism. We’d hear from creative professionals in what seemed to be dream jobs who were crumbling under ever-expanding to-do lists; from bus drivers, hospital technicians, construction workers, doctors, and lawyers who shame-facedly whispered that no matter how hard they tried to keep up with the extra hours and extra tasks, they just couldn’t hold it together. (And don’t even ask about family time.)
Webster’s defines speedup as “an employer’s demand for accelerated output without increased pay,” and it used to be a household word. Bosses would speed up the line to fill a big order, to goose profits, or to punish a restive workforce. Workers recognized it, unions (remember those?) watched for and negotiated over it—and, if necessary, walked out over it.
But now we no longer even acknowledge it—not in blue-collar work, not in white-collar or pink-collar work, not in economics texts, and certainly not in the media (except when journalists gripe about the staff-compacted-job-expanded newsroom). Now the word we use is “productivity,” a term insidious in both its usage and creep. The not-so-subtle implication is always: Don’t you want to be a productive member of society? Pundits across the political spectrum revel in the fact that US productivity (a.k.a. economic output per hour worked) consistently leads the world. Yes, year after year, Americans wring even more value out of each minute on the job than we did the year before. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Except what’s good for American business isn’t necessarily good for Americans. We’re not just working smarter, but harder. And harder. And harder, to the point where the driver is no longer American industriousness, but something much more predatory.
You have nothing to lose but your gains
Productivity has surged, but income and wages have stagnated for most Americans. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.
…Growth is back
…But jobs aren’t
Sound familiar: Mind racing at 4 a.m.? Guiltily realizing you’ve been only half-listening to your child for the past hour? Checking work email at a stoplight, at the dinner table, in bed? Dreading once-pleasant diversions, like dinner with friends, as just one more thing on your to-do list?
Guess what: It’s not you. These might seem like personal problems—and certainly, the pharmaceutical industry is happy to perpetuate that notion—but they’re really economic problems. Just counting work that’s on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), 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 (PDF), and paid maternity leave. (The only other countries that don’t mandate paid time off for new moms are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland. U-S…A?)
To understand how we got here, first let’s consider the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Henry Ford ur-myth: To balk at working hard—really, really hard—brands you as profoundly un-American. Who besides the archetypical Japanese salaryman derives so much of his self-image from self-sacrifice on the job? Slacker is one of the most biting insults available in polite company.
And so we kowtow to—nay, embrace—a cultural maxim that just happens to be enormously convenient to corporate America. “Our culture has encouraged me to only feel valuable if I’m barely hanging on to my sanity,” one friend emailed as we were working on this article. In fact, each time we mentioned this topic to someone—reader, source, friend—they first took pains to say: I’m not lazy. I love my job. I come from a long line of hard workers. But then it would pour out of them—the fatigue, the isolation, the guilt.
“I am exhausted,” said a “part time” college instructor in Illinois. “I can’t help my son with his homework because I am grading papers until late into the night. I get up very early during the week, skip lunch to save not money but time, and the workload never lets up. My employer uses and abuses full-time employees even more so than those of us that are hourly. My supervisor, for example, runs a large department. He was just promoted to a new, even more demanding position, but his position running the department will not be filled. He will now be doing what is a 60-to-70-hour job ‘on the side.’ I can’t complain of overwork, because everyone is competing to get enough classes to pay the bills. If you lose a class, you lose a chunk of your paycheck. If we can’t handle it, the class can always be given to another teacher who will be desperate for the work or money.”
Sure, but these are tough times—employers struggling to survive the recession are just tightening their belts, right? That’s true for some. But in the big picture, the data show a more insidious pattern. Consider the charts above: After a sharp dip in 2008 and 2009, US economic output recovered nicely to near pre-recession levels—we did better than most of our fellow G-7 economies. But not so American workers: Far more people here lost their jobs, and fewer were hired back once the recovery began, than anywhere else.
Now, some jobs always get “rationalized” away, thanks to technological or organizational improvements—an area where, it’s not jingoistic to say, the US has led its European counterparts. But that “productivity gap” has narrowed considerably, and in any case, there certainly was no dramatic tech or efficiency breakthrough between 2008 and 2010 (quite—Twitter/Facebook/FarmVille—the opposite).
What about offshoring? That’s certainly a factor. But increasingly, US workers are also falling prey to what we’ll call offloading: cutting jobs and dumping the work onto the remaining staff. Consider a recent Wall Street Journal story about “superjobs,” a nifty euphemism for employees doing more than one job’s worth of work—more than half of all workers surveyed said their jobs had expanded, usually without a raise or bonus.
In all the chatter about our “jobless recovery,” how often does someone explain the simple feat by which this is actually accomplished? US productivity increased twice as fast in 2009 as it had in 2008, and twice as fast again in 2010: workforce down, output up, and voilá! No wonder corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute. To repeat: Up. Twenty-two. Percent.
This is nothing short of a sea change. As University of California-Berkeley economist Brad DeLong notes, until not long ago, “businesses would hold on to workers in downturns even when there wasn’t enough for them to do—would put them to work painting the factory—because businesses did not want to see their skilled, experienced workers drift away and then have to go through the expense and loss of training new ones. That era is over. These days firms take advantage of downturns in demand to rationalize operations and increase labor productivity, pleading business necessity to their workers.”
How does corporate America have the gall? You pretty much know the answer, but for official confirmation let’s turn to Erica Groshen, a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York: It’s easier here than in, say, the UK or Germany “for employers to avoid adding permanent jobs,” she told the AP recently. “They’re less constrained by traditional human-resources practices [translation: decency] or union contracts.” In plainer English, here’s Rutgers political scientist Carl Van Horn: “Everything is tilted in favor of the employers…The employee has no leverage. If your boss says, ‘I want you to come in the next two Saturdays,’ what are you going to say—no?”
And lest CNBC hornswoggle you, this is not just a product of the recession. Throughout the past decade, salaries stagnated and workloads grew, but Wall Street’s bubble allowed us to drown our sorrows in credit. (Sure, I’m working crazy hours and our pension fund is history, but check out my granite countertop!) Then came the crash, and the speedup…speeded up.
Which brings us to another shared delusion: multitasking. 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.
Multitasking seems the obvious fix—let me just answer this email while I help with your homework! But here’s the scary research news: Minus a few freakish exceptions, most of us cannot actually multitask. Try to keep up a conversation with your spouse while scanning the BlackBerry, and empirical data shows (PDF) that you do both things poorly. And not only that: If you multitask constantly, your actual mental circuitry erodes, and your brain loses its ability to focus. (Same with sleep: Aside from a tiny minority of mutants, humans perform distinctly and progressively worse when they get fewer than eight hours a night. Go ahead and cry.)
Think you’re the exception? Nope. “Virtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multitasking,” warns Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass. “And one of the big discoveries is, you know what? You’re really lousy at it. [It’s] been demonstrated over and over and over. No one talks about it—I don’t know why—but in fact there’s no contradictory evidence to this for about the last 15, 20 years.”
Actually, it’s not hard to guess why no one talks about it: We need to believe there’s a personal workaround for what we’re conditioned to see as a personal shortcoming. When, in fact, the problem is the absurd premise that our economy can produce ever more with ever less.
But take heart! Up in the corner offices, there’s a growing recognition that unrealistic demands on time are destroying the souls of…executives. “Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy,” notes a recent article in McKinsey Quarterly, the research publication of the giant global consulting firm that has been corporate America’s chief efficiency cheerleader. “These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard.” McKinsey’s advice to beleaguered execs? Do one thing at a time; delegate; take more breaks.
Just try telling that to the millions of people whose work has been downsized, offshored, and sped up thanks to McKinsey.
How have we been so brainwashed? For a lucky few, money and perks help sugarcoat the daily frenzy—anything from the workaday onsite gym to the rock-climbing wall, free dry-cleaning, massage parlor, and unlimited sushi you’ll find at the Googleplex. Some heed the siren song of Tony Robbins/Franklin Planner/4-Hour Workweek/Lifehacker—pick your productivity guru. But for most Americans, it’s just fear—of being passed over at best, downsized at worst. Even among college grads, unemployment is twice what it was in 2007, and those statistics don’t take note of all the B.A.’s stocking shelves and answering phones. McDonald’s recently announced that it had gotten more than a million applicants for 62,000 new positions. Enough said.
Meanwhile, what’s passed off as the growing pains of a modern economy is—not to go all Marxist on you—simply about redistribution. For 90 percent of American workers, incomes have stagnated or fallen for the past three decades, while they’ve ballooned at the top, and exploded at the very tippy-top: By 2008, the wealthiest 0.1 percent were making 6.4 times as much as they did in 1980 (adjusted for inflation). And just to further fuel your outrage, that 22 percent increase in profits? Most of it accrued to a single industry: finance.
In other words, all that extra work you’ve taken on—the late nights, the skipped lunch hours, the missed soccer games—paid off. For them.
This will keep up as long as we buy into three fallacies: One, that to feel crushed by debilitating workloads is a personal failing. Two, that it’s just your company or industry struggling—when in fact what’s happening to hotel maids and sales clerks is also happening to project managers, engineers, and doctors. Three, that there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
No, no, and no. We got to this point because of decades of political decisions. To name but three: turning over the financing of elections to wealthy interests; making it harder for unions to organize; deregulating Wall Street (and completely wimping out on reregulating it after the financiers nearly destroyed the global economy). And even after having watched these policies bring the global economy to its knees, Mitch McConnell & Co. say that any questioning of corporate power is tantamount to rolling out the tumbrels. Please.
It would take a boatload of arrogance, and an essay four times this length, to prescribe a solution. But suffice it to say there are companies in the US that have figured out a way to thrive and maintain a sane, even engaging, work environment. (Take the policies of Mule Design Studio, a web-design shop with a number of blue-chip clients: “Our office hours are Monday through Friday 9-6. We do not hand out our cell phone numbers. On the weekend, we cease to exist.”)
European companies face the same pressures that ours do—yet in Germany’s vigorous economy, for example, six weeks of vacation are de rigueur, weekend work is a last resort, and companies’ response to a downturn is not to fire everyone, but to institute Kurzarbeit—temporarily reducing hours and snapping back when things start looking up (PDF). Sure, they lag ever so slightly behind us in productivity. But ask yourself: Who does our No. 1 spot benefit?
Exactly. So maybe it’s time to come out of the speedup closet. Rant to a friend, neighbor, coworker. Hear them say, “Me too.” That might sound a little cheesy, and it’s not going to lance Mitch McConnell from the body politic of America. But if you’re in an abusive relationship—which 90-plus percent of America currently is—the first step toward recovery is to admit you have a problem.