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Part-Time Worker, Full-Time Human Being

Businesses that offer the option to `downshift' into fewer hours will find it benefits both them and their employees - if done properly

ARE Americans working more now and enjoying life less?

In a path-breaking 1991 study entitled ``The Overworked American,'' Harvard economist Juliet Schor reported that while Americans remain the world's most affluent citizens, we work a lot harder than we used to - a full month more a year than we did just 20 years ago. Time off, that vanishing sliver of existence into which must be sandwiched commuting, shopping, cooking, and eating meals, tending the kids, and finally, relaxing, has shrunk to just 16 hours a week.

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Surprisingly, this trend toward overwork holds true for all income groups, the corporate attorney as well as the office secretary, though material rewards are far from equal. Many Americans are forced to moonlight as well, taking a second or even third job to make ends meet. For most women, to full-time work must be added the full-time but unpaid labors of running a household, bringing the total for many working mothers to as much as 65 to 80 hours a week.

Despite the prevalence of two-income families in the 1990s, the feeling of not being able to keep up or get ahead haunts many. Under pressure from the demands of a job, mates and children get short shrift, the spent tailings of a day already mined for its treasures by commercial work. This initial neglect, though born of the good intention of supporting the family, often ends up contributing to marital discord, child abuse, domestic violence, and a host of other social ills.

Paradoxically, while the majority often work to excess, one-fifth of all able-bodied adults can find little or no work at all. Having fallen from the 40-hour treadmill that defines and sustains economic life for the employed, these unfortunates scrape by on the margins, scavenging for odd jobs. Even the few who by virtue of income or inheritance can afford to buy a leisured life seldom find the time to enjoy it. Like frequent-flyer bonus tickets earned on the job but left unused, their free time is a promised future that they have no time to live.

Something is terribly out of sync in an economy that overworks some and underemploys others, leaving many with no time at all for themselves and others with too much for their own good. Why are Americans wedded to the 40-hour workweek? Germans work two months less and Swedes nearly three months less each year than Americans. Yet despite shorter workweeks, longer vacations, and generous paid parental leaves, these and other Western European economies maintain a living standard equal to ours with fewer people in poverty. Only the Japanese and East Asians work longer hours than Americans, and the resulting stresses have produced such bizarre phenomena as karoshi, death-by-overwork, where salesmen die sitting at their desks. Are we willing to be driven to this in the name of beating the global competition?

Freedom over affluence

One partial answer to the predicament of simultaneous overwork and underemployment has received surprisingly little consideration. Why not share jobs so that those with too little time can gain some space while those with too much can find gainful employment? The French government is considering shortening the country's official workweek to just 29 hours in order to reduce high unemployment and increase the availability of part-time work. Eighty percent of Americans say they would sacrifice career advancement in return for more time with families. Yet they remain chained to full-time work in the understandable fear that without it, they will find no work at all.

Part-time work is hard to find in an economy geared exclusively to full-time employment and is largely limited to women in the low-paying service sector doing jobs offering few if any benefits. Just 2.5 percent of able-bodied men voluntarily quit full-time work for part-time, for in doing so most lose more than half their income and all their benefits.

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How can anyone afford such a wage cut? Why do some people choose to accept it in return for more free time? It is surely not for ``leisure,'' if by that is meant lounging in a lawn chair. ``Downshifters'' who choose freedom over affluence consciously decelerate their lives, but they don't stop working hard. Instead of doing the work others tell them to do, they do as much as they can for themselves. In effect, they hire themselves to do most of what they would otherwise need to pay others to do for them. Their incomes decline but their lives grow rich in the experiences that only ample time can afford - gardening, building, cooking, sharing intimate moments with family and friends, doing things that cost little but reward greatly in companionship and interest.

Most of the activities that are starved by our national preoccupation with full-time work are of the caring, nurturing kind and are so unnoticed and undervalued that they scarcely show up in the GNP. Yet they are the most essential, humane, and desperately deprived aspects of our personal lives and communal culture. For many people, the job too often represents a frustrating diversion from what they want most to do with their lives. ``McJob'' skims off the best and freshest energy within them, leaving little with which to discover who they really are and what they are capable of doing besides following someone else's orders.

The globalization of the economy is likely to further deepen the poverty of time that now afflicts all classes of working Americans as we struggle to compete with nations where wages are low, hours long, and conditions abysmal.

Most corporate managers believe that to meet this challenge they must work their employees still harder and so reject all suggestions of shorter hours and shared work. Many worry that a half-time employee will give only half-hearted effort to his or her task and yet cost just as much as a full-time employee to train.

But a few innovative companies like Hewlett-Packard, Levi Strauss, and Black & Decker are experimenting with job-sharing programs. Some schools and universities now offer job-sharing options to their instructors. By splitting the benefits currently earned exclusively by full-time workers, part-time employees are able to preserve their fair share of basic protections.

In addition, more people work as ``consultants'' who contract by the job or hour, sacrificing fringe benefits but maintaining their personal independence. The rise of telecommuting makes flexible part-time work increasingly feasible, permitting parents to share breadwinning and child care and spend more time at home with their children.

Off-hours rewards

In the years to come, some Americans will accept lower incomes in return for more time and freedom to direct their own lives.

But these individuals will likely remain a small minority until more people demand job-sharing alternatives from their employers and their politicians as a basic right and national norm, enshrined as was the eight-hour day a half-century ago.

Employers who prefer to pay overtime to one worker rather than part-time wages to two need to recognize that exhausted employees are less productive than energetic ones and more prone to costly mistakes and mishaps. And all of us need to recall what in our obsession with the ``bottom line'' some seem to have forgotten: that many, if not most, of life's greatest rewards are to be found before and after working hours, in the precious and oft-neglected time we call our own.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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