Drowning in Gravy


Boston. -- It's dusk now when I leave the office. The day is turning up its hem like a new fall skirt.

I see the kids in my neighborhood scurrying to comply with parents' orders that they be home before dark. Orders that the parents cannot always obey themselves.

On my way home these days, I think of my own childhood, of the fathers coming home on the same commuter trains, walking up the same streets at the same hour each day. Today it is the children who greet their parents.

My father was home by six. I suppose some modern company, proud of its high-pressure productivity, would describe his schedule as "mommy hours." But in the 1950s most of the fathers worked "mommy hours." In the 1950s, most of them earned "family wages."

Not so in the 1990s.

It's not a news bulletin that we have evolved to a two-worker economy. If ever a final chapter was written on the Ozzie and Harriet era, it was Harriet Nelson's death this week.

Nor is it news that "the family wage" is now the combined salary of two parents who may be working two shifts, or three jobs. In the endless reruns of the old sitcom, the surprise is not just that Harriet's home, but that Ozzie's home.

In some reverse of labor history, the working class of today -- upper, middle, lower working class, which is to say nearly everyone -- works longer hours than most of our parents.

We seem to be evolving into two classes, the underemployed and the overemployed, those who are desperate for work and those who desperate for time. Especially family time.

When the autoworkers struck at the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, last week, the tired middle-aged men and women carrying picket signs talked of 66-hour workweeks, of mandatory overtime, of missed Little Leagues and birthday parties, of lives that weren't lived. The overtime had once been gravy. Now they were drowning in gravy. What good is more money, they said in a dozen different voices, if you don't have time?

In some ways, they told the story that echoes across the country. In manufacturing jobs, the average workweek is now some 41 hours, higher than at any time since World War II. That average includes a substantial portion of workers for whom eight and 10 hours of overtime have become routine.

In the white-collar world the average workweek is now just under 44 hours. Among executives it's 46.5 hours. Among male executives, it's 48.2 hours. In every workplace that's been downsized and sped up, in every office where workers are doing three jobs for the price of two, in every office where the CEO brags that "productivity" is up, the workload is going up and up.

Employers have learned that it's cheaper to pay fewer people more money than to hire more people and pay benefits. Workers have learned that those who say "no" may be the next to go.

Not long ago, the president wondered out loud, how come the economy is doing better and we don't feel better: "Why aren't we happier?" There's no big secret.

As economist Juliet Schor who authored "The Overworked American" says, Americans feel a decline in their economic quality of life. Scratch the surface of that discontent and you find that "the time issue is very central to how they feel about what they are doing."

"In every poll," she says, "we see a larger fraction of people saying they want more time off the job." In a Gallup Poll, a third of the work force said they would choose shorter hours in exchange for a 20 percent pay cut. If it were offered.

Instead, in this peculiar economic recovery, many find the work hours growing longer. As that happens, what Ms. Schor calls "the culture of resistance" is growing stronger. Especially among the struggling descendants of Ozzie and Harriet.

Just last month, a USAir flight attendant with a husband at work, a babysitter going out the door and a 6-year-old in bed with chicken pox was ordered to take a late overtime flight away from home. For arguing with the scheduler she was fired.

Now in Flint, Michigan, a modest victory has now been won by workers who struck for less money and more life. GM has tentatively agreed to hire more permanent workers.

At last, the message of the resistance movement is echoing from one workplace to the next. In the new, lean, mean economy of the '90s, the currency in shortest supply and greatest demand, is the one called time.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad