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The dollars and cents of America's work ethic

On occasion, technical consultant Shea Mullaney has been awakened by employees coming to work in the morning. He was sleeping under his desk.

"Pretty humiliating," he admits. But when a deadline looms in his small Boston business, Mr. Mullaney goes overboard on overtime - and catches his rest where he can.

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While few go to that extreme, Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in other industrial nations. Many complain this leaves little time for family and friends - or even mowing the lawn.

Behind US work habits lie cultural and technological factors. Cellphones and laptops increasingly blur lines between work and home. A restless drive for success turns America's business into busy-ness.

But new research highlights purely financial motives, too.

For many people, longer hours not only mean cash now, but also the prospect of higher pay later.

It's a "decidedly dollars-and-cents explanation," says Richard Freeman of Harvard University, coauthor with Stanford University's Linda Bell of a paper on the subject recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The two economists found that an extra hour worked now has about the same impact on one's future pay as an hour spent in school. In effect, working harder pays off just as much as working smarter.

If these results paint an image of up-by-the-bootstraps success, the flip side is a penalty for many who don't log long hours.

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In fact, the economists say the penchant for work relates directly to the degree of inequality along the income ladder. In Germany, with less wage inequality than the United States, workers have less to gain from long hours.

America, by contrast, has wider variation in wages. Pay in many typical jobs, meanwhile, has been stagnating relative to inflation - giving workers a strong incentive to strive for the higher-end jobs where wages have been rising.

"There's a greater distance between winning and losing," says Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "What it takes to make ends meet is considerable, relative to the wages low-wage workers earn."

In some professions, the financial rewards of longer hours reflect what's called the "rat race" thesis, says James Rebitzer, an economist at Case Western University.

Looking at large law firms, Mr. Rebitzer found that younger lawyers hoping to win the highly lucrative position of a partner put in enormous hours to compete with other younger lawyers for the relatively few openings to become a partner.

"Clearly there is pressure to bill hours," says Angela Padilla, a partner at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco. Silicon Valley business has slowed some, but "we were killing ourselves in the last few years."

All this doesn't mean the typical work week is 50 hours. (It just feels that way.)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) puts the typical workweek at about 42 hours for managers and 35 hours for nonsupervisory workers, about where it has been for a decade.

What has happened is that more women have gone to work, or work longer.

Couples "have less time to do the shopping, go to the cleaners, pick up the kids after school," says Randy Ilg, a BLS expert.

During the 1980s, the average family added four weeks of extra work per year. Families in the bottom 60 percent of incomes put in 10 percent more weeks a year. The rise in family hours continued in the 1990s, albeit at a slower pace.

Also, people may actually be working longer hours than official monthly data show. Today's workers often are beeped at home, make business calls on the subway, and peck at laptops on planes or trains - time typically missed in BLS statistics.

That news will raise a skeptical chuckle from many managers or professionals.

Nancy Faris, a senior writer at Libretto Inc. in Boston, talks of 12-hour days, six days a week when corporate annual reports are being prepared. Like other working couples, she and her husband ease the time crunch by hiring outside help: a cleaning service and "doggie day care."

For professionals, the long hours aren't always a drag. "The end [of a project] is usually in sight," Ms. Faris says. "There is incredible satisfaction in getting there."

But unions at United Parcel Service and General Motors recently took actions against involuntary overtime.

In fact, while high-income workers have always put in long hours, now middle-income families aren't far behind. Those at the bottom of the pay scale work fewer hours, but still more than in the past.

The increased daily grind appears to be taking its toll in what Carl Van Horne of Rutgers University calls "boom fatigue."

Only 43 percent of workers report being "very satisfied" with their hours, as of April, compared with 54 percent last summer, according to surveys he orchestrates from New Brunswick, N.J.

In other words, part of the long-hours story has been the labor shortage. In times of high demand, companies pressed employees to work more hours, voluntarily or involuntarily. Even now, as some companies lay off workers, those left behind are scrambling to pick up the slack.

Professor Freeman says it will take collective action for Americans to tame their "workaholic" behavior. The government could add more holidays, including perhaps election day. "Getting to four- or five-week vacations, as in Western Europe, might be more difficult."

A revival of trade unionism or sympathetic labor laws could bring some change.

"If anything major does happen," Freeman predicts, "it will come from women and from women's groups."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor