America's Workers: Stressed Out, Overwhelmed, Totally Exhausted

I was struck, too, that the GSS doesn’t ask that same question about fathers. Even the way we pose our questions is stuck in the 1950s. Our family lives, family structures and the workforce has changed utterly in the last half century, and yet our workplaces, the policies everyone knows look nice on the books but are the kiss of death to take, our laws, and our attitudes have yet to catch up with our reality. That’s where the swirl of "the overwhelm" begins.

But it doesn’t stop there. I soon discovered that men are beginning to feel as much or more overwhelm than women, now that so many no longer just want to be the distant provider father, or just the fun Dad or helper parent, but truly involved at home. They’re doing now what women did 30 years agogiving up time for sleep and personal care and spending almost all their “leisure” time with their kids. And I discovered how much longer and extreme work hourswhich have been climbing since the 1980sthe constant dings and pings of technology and a new cultural value of busyness is now ramping the feeling of overwhelm for everyone.

Like any reporter, I started down a path and just followed where the trail led. I began looking for these 30 hours of leisure. But I soon discovered you couldn’t look at leisure without looking at work, and you couldn’t understand what was happening at work without looking at home and our relationships. That’s where the subtitle comes from: Work, Love, and Playwhat I was to discover philosophers and psychologists said are the three great arenas of life, and that you need time in all three for the Good Life.

How much of the overwhelm would you say can be chalked up to a sort of shared mental statein which we are all constantly in a frenzy and talking about that frenzy, and that elevates our feeling of being overwhelmed? And how much of this feeling is justified by realityAmericans, particularly women, doing more, having such high standards for themselves, the endless chores it takes just to maintain a household, etc. etc. etc.? Also, how much of this is due to our choicesI’m thinking of this recent Onion article “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown.” Is it just that we are all striving too hard to achieve too much?

It’s really all of the above. We do talk about how busy and overwhelmed we are all the timethink about how we talk to each other. “How are you?” “Fried. You?” “Same.” When was the last time someone said, “I’ve been doing absolutely nothing.” We usually launch into an exhausting laundry list of stuff.

But we are also, truly, doing more. We’re working more hoursmore extreme hours at one job at the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum and cobbling together several jobs to try to make ends meet at the lower end. Our standards for what it takes to be a good parent, particularly a good mother, are insanely high and out of proportion to all reality. Working mothers today now spend as much or more time with their kids as stay-at-home mothers in the 1960s and '70s. I found that fascinating.

We all feel like we’re not doing enough for our children, so in our guilt, we do, do, do, and overdo: more lessons, more teams, more sports, bigger birthday parties, more educational outings. And we all feed off each otherparticularly as we look to the future, see a changing global economy and so much uncertainty about what “success” will look like. There’s so much fear and we’re so worried that our kids will somehow be left out, or left behind. That’s part of what fuels the craziness of the parenting merry go round.

And as for choresman, all you have to do is open up any magazine and you’ll see that, for women, you can never be enough. Debora Spar, president of Barnard, called it the “triple whammy” in her recent book Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. You have to keep house like Martha Stewart, parent like Donna Reed, work like Sheryl Sandberg, and look like Jennifer Anniston. That’s nuts. We all know it’s nuts, and yet it’s hard to break away from those cultural expectations.

I asked Peter Senge about that. How to try to live and work in a sane way when you’re in the middle of insanity: a voracious workplace that will eat you alive, friends and neighbors who raise eyebrows if you pull your kids out of some competitive activity. He gave some important advice: Create your own community, a network of like-minded people. Humans are wired to conformthat’s why these cultural pressures, however silly they may seem, wield such power over us. So find a group that fits your values that would make you happier to conform to.

To tack back for a moment to one thing you mentioned earlier ... on the griping ritual we all take part in: Do you think that sort of reciprocated venting can contribute to our stress, rather than have the, I suppose, "normal" effect of venting—that is, to let off steam?

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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