We're All Overworked


>By Samuel Greengard

Take a poll of your 10 closest friends and I'm willing to wager that, if they're working, they will complain about working way too much. Twenty years ago, we were reading about how technology could soon create a leisure-based society. Machines would handle all sorts of rote tasks and imbue us with more free time than we would know what to do with.

Somewhere along the way, that fantasy train got derailed. Now we're all dealing with 24x7 inboxes, vacations that don't exist and bosses that constantly want more, more, more. One person does the job that two or three people handled in the past. You begin to ask what is humanly possible and when society will hit the breaking point.

The International Labour Organization reports that Americans work 137 more hours annually than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers. The Center for American Progress notes that in 1960, only 20 percent of mothers worked. Today, 70 percent of American children live in households where all adults are employed.

As a society, we have decided to trade time for money. In the process, we have engineered a system in which there's no opt-out button. You take a job, you work the hours--end of story.

Today, information technology serves as the backbone for a business environment in which competitive advantages are incredibly short-lived. Over time, others catch up and everyone winds up running on the treadmill faster and faster simply to stay in the race.

The unintended consequence is that we essentially do the same work as always, albeit in a different way, but we must accomplish tasks at twice or thrice the previous speed.

If this is progress, I'm not sure how that word should be defined. Somewhere on the road to prosperity, we've collectively lost sight of a very basic question: If we continue to turn up the speed and intensity of work, what have we actually gained? At a certain point, it's reasonable to ask whether in the grand scheme of things we're actually stepping forward or moving backward.