Americans Work Too Much and Have Too Little Time for Play: Here's How to Slow Down 'The Great Speed-Up'
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Feeling overwhelmed? If you're like many Americans, the answer is probably a beleaguered yes. People across the country report that they are working harder than ever, checking their email on weekends and vacations, putting in more hours at the office, and juggling multitasks just to keep up. While the frenzied pace seems to have hit information workers particularly hard, employees throughout the economy (warehouse workers, hotel housekeepers, teachers) say they are being asked to do more, in less time, with fewer co-workers to help them.
Welcome to " The Great Speedup." That's what Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, who edit Mother Jones, dub the phenomenon in the current issue of their magazine. Just like when factory owners used to speed up the pace of the assembly line to fill an order, today's companies are trying to wring more productivity from workers year after year, even as wages for most remain flat. Bauerlein and Jeffery write: "Just counting work that's on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), Americans now work an average of 122 hours per year more than Brits and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans."
Judging from the buzz in the blogosphere, the article has struck a chord with many (especially the hyper-wired cognoscenti who are so plugged in they notice a new MoJo story as soon as it's posted). The article makes me think of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique: Here, suddenly, is a clear description of a malaise that millions have felt but had no name for. The idea of the Great Speedup is so compelling because it dissects a problem hiding in plain sight. It's a relief to realize that all of us, worked to the bone, are not alone.
I was thinking about all this the other day as I took my time to make a sandwich before heading off to the three-acre organic fruit and vegetable garden where I volunteer. In the middle of the week. On a Wednesday.
Although I have certainly felt the time-crunch anxiety so many people complain of, at that moment -- standing in my kitchen at midday -- it seemed that I had all the time in the world. The antidote to the Great Speedup appeared obvious. Don't want to work so hard? OK, then: Work less.
I know that doesn't sound all that helpful (and more than a little tautological), but bear with me. Because here's the thing: From scrappy little nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies, there are examples out there of how to have a fulfilling career while working fewer hours. If you really want to slow down, the first thing you have to do is ask for it.
My personal experience is illustrative (to a point). I work as an editor at a quarterly environmental magazine. It's a great job, and I'm psyched to have it, but I also have other passions -- foremost among them, organic farming. So when I was offered the job, I said I could only accept the position if I could take off two afternoons a week to go work in the garden. At first, my future boss was leery of the idea. He wanted a full-time editor, not someone who was going to disappear a couple of days to play in the dirt. But I assured him I could do the job at 75 percent time and he relented -- on the condition that the time split would be re-evaluated after a six-month probationary period. More than four years later, the arrangement is still in place: I go to the magazine Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and spent Wednesday and Friday afternoons building compost and digging vegetable beds.