In 1974, as a recent New York Times article points out, sociologist Lewis Coser coined the term "greedy professions" to describe jobs that "seek exclusive and undivided loyalty.” At the time, however, long hours weren't glorified as they are now. People who worked 50 hours or more a week four decades ago were paid 15 percent less per hour than their 40-hours-a-week peers. Now, according to new research, people working 50 hours or more a week are paid 8 percent more than those working fewer hours.
And these rewards for overwork are what many economists and sociologists believe are responsible for America's most educated women facing the biggest gender gap in seniority in pay. Many of these educated women are the primary caregivers of their households and simply cannot put in such extreme hours. Researchers Youngjoo Cha of Indiana University and Kim Weeden of Cornell found that the gender gap between mothers and fathers would be 15 percent smaller today if employees working extreme hours didn't start making more than those working normal hours. (Of course, we're only talking about paid labor here, while so much of women's work goes unpaid. It's no wonder Rose Laub Coser, Lewis's wife and a sociologist herself, called the expectations of motherhood a "greedy institution" in its own right.)
"The ultimate solution, researchers say, is not to make it possible for mothers to work crazy hours, too," writes the Times' Claire Cain Miller. "It's to reorganize work so that nobody has to."
It's a powerful point. Why do we worship at the altar of overwork? When did long hours become a status symbol? It's the same topic we explored in this space when we discussed the problem of measuring productivity by hours clocked, or when we delved into the problem of appearing busy in order to seem like a good employee. Both issues, plus this extreme workweek standard that's exacerbating gender gaps, are symptoms of the underlying disease: the normalization of overwork.
But 50-, 60-, 70-hour work weeks should not be normalized. We're playing a game of work ethic one-upmanship, and we're sacrificing our mental health in the process.
Instead of worshiping overwork, we should be embracing our individual working styles. Some people do their work methodically and steadily; others blaze through their work in streaks of peak focus. Some people work best in a shared workplace; others work best in isolation. Some people are early birds; others are night owls. As long as the work gets done, why should it matter when and where it gets done?
Indeed, in talking about reorganizing work so that no one has to work crazy hours, Miller says that flexibility is one of the most effective solutions. Throughout the article, she uses a New York City couple, Daniela Jampel and Matthew Schneid, as poster children for the overwork-induced gender gap: Despite them both earning law degrees, she works 21 hours a week and he works 60 to 80 and earns four to six what she earns. But Schneid is still a "hands-on father," Miller writes, and he uses a form of DeskPlus to come home before his kids' bedtime many nights.
Our lives and our work may never be in perfect balance, but they can at least be compatible. Work should not come at the expense of life, but systemic structures force so many people into this culture of overwork and make salary gaps between certain demographics that much wider. Luckily for all of us, flexibility offers a way to break the cycle and to give workers the life-work compatibility they so badly need.