Newt Gingrich: The 80-Hour Work Week

Betsy Taylor is director of the Center for a New American Dream. Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College, and author of The Overworked American: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure. Sharon Basco interviewed them for TomPaine.com.

Sharon Basco: In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Newt Gingrich is quoted in giving advice to some interns in Washington. He tells them to "dream big," and "work hard." And this is what he says about working hard: "If you work 80 hours a week, that's probably about right. If you work 60, that's barely marginal." And I just wonder what you think about that. I know that there are many levels to comment on here.

Betsy Taylor: Well, Newt Gingrich is obviously uninterested in true family values. I mean, honestly, if we teach young people that they have to work an 80-hour week in order to get ahead, the impact on our next generation of parents and leaders will be catastrophic.

We need to help people understand that to be truly successful, we've got to strike a proper balance between work and family. It seems to me that spending as much time as possible with your kids, your friends and your community are the sort of family values we should be promoting.

The average American already works more hours a year than your typical European or Japanese. Do we have to work more? What do we get for it?

Gingrich talks a lot about family values, but what is he wanting here? That kind of workweek will give us stress-related disease, broken families, and of course piles of material goods that we have very little time to enjoy.

Is this the answer to the good life? Is this the kind of family values we want? If you care about our young people, this is exactly the wrong, 180-degree wrong advice. We're already stressed-out. We're already seeing broken relationships, kids who don't have any adults in their lives because we work all the time. This advice is bad for young people, it's bad for our communities, and it's bad for America.

SB: That was Betsy Taylor, director of the Center for a New American Dream. We'll pose the same question -- about Newt Gingrich's advice to work an 80-hour week -- to Juliet Schor. She's a professor of sociology at Boston College, and author of The Overworked American: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure.

Juliet Schor: I think Gingrich is revealing a sad truth about what's happened in American workplaces, which is that work norms have escalated dramatically in the last couple of decades. He's probably right that it's difficult to succeed in the Beltway world -- and we can add to that the corporate world, the world of lawyering or doctoring or many other professions. As well as the manufacturing world. It's difficult to succeed now without putting in extraordinarily long hours.

On the one hand, I think Gingrich is offering sound advice to these young people. But of course that raises two really important questions. One is: what are the impacts of such long hours on these individuals and on society? And here I think we have a situation in which while it may be rational for these kids to work such long hours, for the society as a whole it's a disaster. Because if everybody needs to work 80 hours a week, there's nobody to watch children, reproduce communities, live daily life. All of the things that we do when we're not at work.

And of course the other question is: can you really do good work when you're putting in an 80-hour week, and I think there's a lot of evidence that you can drive people beyond the point where they're actually productive. And 80 hours tends to be beyond that productivity point.

SB: What about the productivity of other societies where they're striving to shorten their hours? France, for example, is moving toward a 32-hour workweek.

Schor: The irony of the current situation is that the United States had much lower working hours at the end of the second World War than did Western Europe, Japan, virtually all of the countries that we have economic and political relations with. What's happened, particularly in the last 20 years, is these nations have emphasized good hourly productivity. That is, in any hour of work they get good performance out of their workers. But they've shortened the total number of hours. The U.S. has gone the other way, it's driven hours higher and higher, that has a negative impact on per-hour productivity, because we tend to take more breaks, not be as focused, unable to really do work in as concentrated a way when we're working so many hours per week. Say, the 80 hours we're talking about. As we can as we begin to move down to, say, a 40-hour workweek, or a 32-hour workweek as they're talking about moving towards in France.

SB: Is there any hope for that sort of adjustment in this country, or are we just so accustomed to being puritanical work machines that that can't work in this society?

Schor: I certainly think it's possible here. You do begin to see this happening on an individual basis as people opt out of those long-hour corporate jobs, on in this case political jobs, and try to fashion alternative work arrangements for themselves. And there's been a fair amount of that happening. But the sticking point at the moment is that it's very difficult to have a high-achievement career and work short hours. So people are forced to make the tradeoff between career success and hours of work.

The greatest hope for a more comprehensive movement toward shorter hours of work comes through those institutions that traditionally have pushed for social policy in that direction, and those are, of course, unions, women's organizations, social reform groups, and so forth.

Ironically, one of the things that happens when we have high and intractable unemployment is that people start to think about reductions in hours as a solution to that. So depending on what happens with the current economy we may begin to see some increased interest in the idea of shorter hours.

SB: Juliet Schor, thanks very much.

Schor: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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