In Praise of Downtime

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Americans work more hours than any other group in the Western world, but we're not necessarily more productive. This has to change.

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Since its publication in The Atlantic this month, Anne-Marie Slaughter's thoughtful essay: "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" has garnered thousands of opinions voiced in everything from personal blogs to the national media. But few if any of these posed what to me seems the essential question: How is it that we've come to believe that "having it all" means working our tails off -- be it at home at the office or both?

"I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women," writes Slaughter, a Princeton professor, who recently completed a tour as Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department. "I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book."

A debate on career and family See full coverage

Not to mention mother, wife, and writer of cover stories for national magazines. Yet despite this exhausting load, it was not until making the weekly commute from Princeton, New Jersey to Washington D.C. that the scales fell from professor Slaughter's eyes. It was only then that she saw clearly the plight of working professional women everywhere -- women who she believes feel a somewhat more compelling responsibility toward their children than do men. With few exceptions, she contends, professional women are fighting a losing battle against time.

Slaughter's proposed solutions to this dilemma cannot be argued against: They boil down to job flexibility and the privileging of productivity over face-time. I do worry, though, over her only passing acknowledgment that in today's eerily unsettled employment environment, few people of either gender are in a position to demand such luxuries. And those who do don't necessarily benefit by the privilege, as they sometimes find themselves "making up for lost time" by working still longer hours. Many professionals work countless hours both at home and in the office because employers -- and the culture -- expect it. As evidenced by Slaughter's own arguments, overwork has become not only normalized in this country, but a glamorous status symbol. And that to me seems the essential problem.

In the late 1970s America's annual working hours, after declining for decades, began to steadily increase. Today Americans work more hours than do people in any other Western nation. Yet at the same time most real middle class incomes in this country stagnated and in some cases even declined. Young male workers were particularly hard hit: In the early 2000s, men ages 25-34 made less than did their fathers at a similar age. Of course we all know where the money went. The huge discrepancy between C-level executives and the rest of us has become a simple matter of fact; as have pay cuts, benefit reductions, layoffs and slippery "employee at will" contracts.

Despite this we continue to work ever harder -- and admire those who do. Yet there is no evidence that long hours contribute to real productivity in the work place, and plenty of evidence that they do not. Slaughter's suggestion that to enable family dinners for employees managers schedule meetings at 8pm rather than at 6pm does not seem to me an uplifting one. That parents be allowed to work one day from home -- as well as nights and weekends -- seems even more depressing.

Let's acknowledge that even high power lawyers, government workers, business people, academics and magazine editors -- male and female -- require time not only with families, but alone with their own thoughts. Why not be bold and mandate that work end with the end of weekday?

Like many readers, I am grateful to Slaughter for pointing out the challenge of parenting while simultaneously holding a powerful job. She is absolutely right -- more women deserve to be and must be in positions of power and authority. Her message is generous, heartfelt and necessary. But very few of us -- male or female -- can afford to make demands on our employers, or change a system the endless demands of which undermine our families and our health.

So I do hope that Slaughter did not mean to imply that we as individuals attempt to reform a system that increasingly relies on overwork -- and underemployment -- to pad the bottom line. Such reform is a job that society -- the collective "we" -- must tackle. And to do so we must push hard against our current practice of celebrating overwork and treat it as the scam it has become. As philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote eighty years ago in the essay, In Praise of Idleness "We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labor by making the others overwork." As a nation we must fight back against this ugly bit of nastiness. And as individuals we ought to take to heart Russell's incisive observation: "....I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work..."

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor and science journalist who teaches at Boston University. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. More

Atlantic contributing editor Ellen Ruppel Shell teaches at Boston University, where she co-directs the Graduate Program in Science Journalism. She writes on science, medicine, the media, economics, and sometimes even sports and the arts, and tends to focus on the underlying cultural and societal implications. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
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