Time crunch hits home


Busier and busier: Jerry Jacobs with a chart showing the proportion of people in different countries who work more than 50 hours a week.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Jerry Jacobs takes his work very personally. “Ever since I’ve been studying how busy we all are, I’ve been busier than ever,” the professor of sociology said. “This research has been much more personally significant to me than anything else that I’ve ever done.”

Jacobs is working to resolve a debate in sociological research: Are we working more than ever before or do we have an unprecedented amount of leisure time? Jacobs’ novel approach to the data involved studying work and leisure time not from the individuals’ point of view but from the point of view of families. Individuals might not actually be working longer hours - in fact, statistics show that the work week is the same as it was 30 years ago - but they feel more pressed for time because there are more dual-earner families and single mothers. No one is at home to do the household chores and take care of the kids.

Then there is a segment of the labor force that is actually working more: people with college educations, notably in high-tech jobs.

“The irony is that our affluent society is not producing more leisure for many people,” Jacobs said. “The more we make, it seems, the more we work.”

The reasons for the increased pressure on educated workers are varied, Jacobs said. Internet startups may be rushing to jump into the market, putting a burden on their employees; the Fair Labor Standards Act, which adopted a 40-hour work week as the standard, doesn’t apply to managers and professionals; and, because benefits are so expensive, it is cheaper for employers to either hire part-timers, who don’t get benefits, or to push existing employees to work longer hours.

“If you’re interested in having 120 hours of work, it’s cheaper to have two 60-hour workers than to have three 40-hour workers,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs’ wife works in human resources in the Health System, and they have two young children. Jacobs says he is in a better position than many because his hours are flexible.

Still, he said, especially since he began his current studies, demands on his time have increased — demands from the press and organizations that want him to speak at conferences, and from more proffered opportunities to do research.

The answer to the American time crunch, he feels, may lie in legislation regulating the workweek for professionals as well as hourly workers.

Public concern is certainly mounting. Everyone has a story to tell.

“It’s been a very good conversation starter,” he noted.

Originally published on March 2, 2000