Study Guide

The Overworked American

by Juliet B. Schor

The Overworked American Analysis

The Overworked American (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For the past twenty years, the average work year in the United States has increased by nine hours per year, so that American workers now work an average of 320 more hours per year than their European counterparts. This is the statement that has captured the popular mind, making this scholarly treatise (one-third of the book’s pages consist of an appendix, notes, and indexes) a high-volume seller.

Schor notes that her study corrects for the fact that more workers now hold second jobs than previously, accounts for the changing proportion of jobs in various industries, adjusts for business cycles, and uses representative samples. Previous major studies each failed to make at least one of these corrections, she says. In her opening chapter, Schor cites an array of statistics, but it often is difficult to decipher which groups of people she is discussing, as she switches frequently from one to another and rarely gives an adequate definition of a group.

After the initial statistics are presented, the book becomes a treatise on the faults of capitalism. Schor explains the tendency toward greater hours as a natural outcome of a cycle of “work-and-spend,” whereby workers can be enticed to work more hours by higher incomes, use those incomes to buy goods to make their limited leisure time more enjoyable, then become accustomed to those higher incomes, and in fact desire to earn even more. Employers are satisfied with this cycle, as the nature of fringe benefits and the costs of hiring make it desirable to have a small, permanent workforce rather than a larger one with frequent exit and entry. This cycle explains why overtime work can exist at the same time, or even in the same firm, as substantial unemployment.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. February 10, 1992, p. 13.

Journal of Economic Literature. XXX, September, 1992, p. 1528.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 19, 1992, p. 1.

Monthly Labor Review. CXV, May, 1992, p. 53.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, February 2, 1992, p. 1.

The Progressive. LVI, June, 1992, p. 37.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, November 22, 1991, p. 42.

Utne Reader. LVI, March, 1992, p. 117.

The Wall Street Journal. February 14, 1992, p. A9.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, March 15, 1992, p. 3.

The Overworked American (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Computers, cellular phones, fax and copy machines—far from creating more time, modern capitalism’s latest technology has actually intensified the demands of the workplace. That technology creates an expectation as tempting as it is deceptive, namely, that one can and must work faster and thereby accomplish more. A common result is too many commitments and too little time to fulfill them. Indeed, in The Overworked American—a study that is insightful, troubling, and cautiously hopeful all at once—Juliet Schor shows that for many Americans, leisure time is unexpectedly in decline.

To understand this counterintuitive outcome, Schor explores economic history, current labor practices, and conflicting senses of expectation. Her book criticizes capitalism from within. It also concludes with modest notes of hope. Running breathlessly on a treadmill of work-and-spend, we Americans have imprisoned ourselves in what Schor calls a “squirrel cage.” Nevertheless, she says, the treadmill can be slowed; an exit from the cage may be found. The Overworked American suggests how to begin those steps.

Schor faced many problems in writing this book. Not the least of them was that its topic, and certainly its title, might seem out of place in the 1990’s. A book about the underworked if not the unemployed American would arguably have been more timely. As Schor’s book appeared, recession gnawed at the nation’s economy. Everyday news included mounting layoffs and stubbornly high unemployment statistics. Far from overlooking or discounting the lack of economic opportunity that put millions of Americans under duress, Schor contends that overwork for some and too little work or none at all for others are key pieces in the same economic puzzle.

The guiding principle of a capitalist system such as ours, argues Schor, is not primarily to provide employment but profitability instead. Profitability may result in high employment rates; but when that relationship does hold, it is a happy coincidence more than a necessary condition. Particularly during the last twenty years, mergers and takeovers, market uncertainties, and increasing pressures from foreign competitors have intensified cost-cutting measures. Instead of adding to the wage and benefit bill that the hiring of new personnel entails, American enterprise has expected more and more from its existing workforce. In this same period, government has been unwilling or unable to provide work for the unemployed. With increases in the pace and quantity of work for those who are employed, conditions aggravated in times when high unemployment weakens the bargaining power of unions, gaps widen and inequities deepen between the overworked and those at the other end of the spectrum. Thus, the simultaneous existence of large numbers of overworked and unemployed Americans is not at all the paradox it appears to be at first glance. As Schor sees the situation, the two conditions feed on each other.

When unemployment rose in the 1970’s, Schor notes, there were reformers who urged shorter, not longer, weekly hours for the existing workforce. Such reductions, the reformers argued, would spread work around and put millions of people back to work. For the most part, those proposals fell on deaf ears, even as unemployment worsened in the 1980’s. Striving to figure out why a philosophy of work sharing has been so largely ignored, Schor’s inquiry probes capitalism’s logic, its history and late twentieth century practice.

Schor’s data analysis yields telling results. For example, after taking care of business, job, and household obligations, contemporary Americans average only sixteen and a half hours of leisure per week. For many Americans, working hours are longer than they were forty years ago, and those hours have risen steadily during the last twenty years. If current rates continue, the American labor force will be working hours comparable to those that were common in the 1920’s. This change was unexpected and therefore it long went unnoticed. After all, the conventional economic wisdom promised that the progress of capitalism and technology would provide more leisure, not less.

If such trends caught the nation unaware, by no means does Schor consider them inevitable. In similar economic circumstances—for example, those of France or West Germany—she discovered that typical manufacturing employees worked 320 hours less per year than their American counterparts. Nor was a lack...

(The entire section is 1837 words.)