Economist Juliet B Schor on the Maxedout Middle Class

With the publication of The Overworked American in 1992, Harvard economist Juliet B. Schor became part of the tiny company of left-wing economists who have found a wide national audience. Her stated aim was to “help revive the public discussion on hours of work which died out 50 years ago.” She succeeded. The argument that Americans were working harder and longer touched a frazzled nerve. Schor popped up on the network news shows, toured the country, made the best-seller lists, and has been frequently cited in the years since as an authority on work and leisure.

Schor’s essential finding was that, looking at the time span from 1969 to 1987, “the average employed person is now on the job an additional 163 hours, or the equivalent of an extra month a year.” To most of the mass media and the general public, Schor’s book was a validation of everyday experience. There did seem to be less free time than there used to be. Middle-class life had become more harried. Job demands seemed to be competing with family time, especially as more mothers entered the work force.

But in the academic community, Schor’s evidence was not universally accepted. A leading critic emerged in the person of John P. Robinson, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. Robinson criticizes “the frailty of the numbers on which Schor’s case is built.” His complaint is that the federal Current Population Survey statistics that Schor used rely on people remembering accurately how many hours they worked in the previous week. In Robinson’s view, people tend to overestimate how many hours they put in. Robinson’s “Americans’ Use of Time Project” relies instead on “time-diaries” that are filled out by survey participants in 15-minute intervals through a work day. Based on his collection of data from time-diary studies in 1965, 1975, and 1985, Robinson argues there has not been an increase in average work hours. In 1997, Robinson and co-author Geoffrey Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University, made their counter-case in Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time.

Schor has responded by questioning the representativeness of Robinson’s survey samples, and she notes that 1975 and 1985 were slower years in the business cycle, when people tend to work less. The Current Population Survey uses a larger sample and provides annual data. (The academic dispute can take the reader down some interesting roads. Those who wish to know more may be interested in Schor’s vigorous and engaging explanation of her disagreements with Robinson in a paper that is available on the Internet through the Shorter Work Time site at

What’s important about the “overwork” debate, of course, is that ultimately it is anything but “academic.” The issue affects employees at all income levels. In the world of politics, it matters greatly to labor and to management, to the left and to the right–or at least it should–whether American workers are, as Schor would have it, trapped in “the squirrel cage of capitalism,” or whether they are whining about work mainly because of “the psychology of victimization that flourishes today,” as Robinson has written. There is no question Schor’s sympathies are with workers – and that her work is informed by a radical perspective. When The Overworked American came out, Boston Globe columnist David Warsh said it “may be the most important road map to political change to appear since The Affluent Society was published by John Kenneth Galbraith in 1958.” (The comparison with Galbraith is apt at least in one respect: Schor writes about economics clearly and without the usual mumbo jumbo.) Warsh also recognized the political import of Schor’s critique. “It is precisely the sort of position around which the left can begin to reform its ranks,” he wrote.

Last year, Schor expanded her critique of America’s “insidious cycle of work and spend” in a new book, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer, which was released this spring in paperback. I met with Schor in her office at Harvard, where she is now a senior lecturer on Women’s Studies. She also holds a position at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, where she worked from 1995-1997. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length. – DAVE DENISON

CommonWealth: Do you believe the evidence will show, now that we’ve had this economic expansion through the 1990s, that Americans have become even more overworked in recent years?

Schor: The data that I’ve seen suggests that hours of work continued to rise through the 1990s. They tend to go up in periods of economic expansion and fall in recessions. So there’s been a continuing rise through the 1990s.…What I found was, excluding [one] group, the under-employed, we had increasing hours of work for men and women. We had it across age groups. We had it across occupations and industries. It was remarkably widespread.…So I think “the overworked American” is quite accurate, with this one exception: The major exception is the growth of under-employment. That’s extremely important.…I was able to identify all those people and take them out of the sample and compare samples with and without those people and see that the really large increases happen among the people who are not constrained in the labor market. So we’ve got under-work and overwork.

CommonWealth: Is there not polling data that suggests that there is significant sentiment among some workers, in fact, to increase their hours?

Schor: Certainly. There’s always been. I mean if you have a whole group of people who are under-employed, ipso facto, they’re going to tell you in the polls that they want more hours….At the beginning of, roughly, 1980, what you [found] was the vast majority of people satisfied with their present hours-income trade-off; a very small number wanting more free time, fewer hours, and less money, about 5 percent; and somewhere between 10 and 15 percent saying, I’d like more money and more hours. Today the fractions who articulate the desire for shorter hours with a commensurate income loss have climbed to about 20 percent in the standard version of this [survey]. I use the term “overwork” in a particular sense. It has to do with people working more hours than they would prefer to. So people’s satisfaction with the current hours-income trade-off has declined quite substantially in the last 20 years.

CommonWealth: I guess it really does depend on what segment of the work force we’re talking about. I mean, if you read a magazine like Fast Company, you begin to get this feeling that there’s a large part of the professional elite class, the entrepreneurial sector, the so-called “knowledge workers,” who seem to be absorbed in their work and fascinated by it, and happy to make it the center of their life.

Schor: No doubt. Those are, first of all, disproportionately men, who have always articulated stronger preferences for work, relative to time off work. And the fact that you have people who love their work and are engrossed in it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t also at the margin prefer some more downward flexibility. Now, I’m not saying that your average computer hacker would prefer to work fewer hours. I don’t know. I haven’t done a survey of them. It varies a lot with age, marital status, parent/non-parent status. Those sorts of things. Typically the value of time outside of work is higher for people who have strong non-work lives. And one of the things you see, particularly for younger people, [in] some of these kinds of companies that you’re talking about…their life is their work. So when they’re off work the value of time is not so high to them.

CommonWealth: It gets at the question of whether, if a good part of America is working 50- and 60-hour weeks, is it because they really want to?

Schor: Well, that’s a complicated question. I mean, I have a model which says people end up wanting what they’re given, in some sense. So that their preferences on money and income tend to adapt.…My model is that people don’t get the chance to reduce their hours, even though in surveys about forgoing future income for more free time, there’s very high stated preferences to forgo income and take the time. They don’t get it. They get the income instead, they spend the income.…Career success depends on a certain level of hours. It’s going to depend on the particular job. People adapt to those hours. And if they don’t, they end up going out of those jobs. And I’ve been studying those people – “down-shifters.” There are very significant numbers of people who in the 1990s have made voluntary labor market changes to work fewer hours, precisely because they were working more hours than they wanted to. It really comes down to this: Who do you think is driving the labor market? Is it the preferences of workers or is it the structures of jobs that corporations have set up and the temporal requirements that they’ve associated with those jobs? And from observing the corporate culture, I believe a model which says it’s institutionally driven and people more or less end up adapting. Some adapt better and others, worse.

CommonWealth: I would guess that it’s very much an open question with the public how much support there is for a shorter workweek. I think even progressives, certainly people in the labor movement, are of mixed minds on this. There’s the idea, I think, in unions that it would make a lot more sense to improve wages and drive on that, to try to raise living standards, to have that as a better goal than to shorten the workweek. I mean, unions in this country haven’t made a push to shorten the workweek.

Schor: No, not at all. They haven’t in the last 50 years. They did for a hundred years before that – that was a major goal of the labor movement. To some extent it depends on what part of the income distribution you’re talking about. There’s much more sentiment for reducing hours with income reductions in the higher parts [of the labor force], and those are non-unionized. You see much greater articulation in the surveys for shorter hours of work there. A lot depends on how you present it to people. If you offer people the option of a four-day workweek with, not a 20-percent reduction in pay, but a 10-percent productivity increase and a 10-percent pay reduction, I’m quite certain that would be a very popular option. Granted, people would have to think it’s economically feasible. It couldn’t be something that they thought was going to drive their employer out of business. There’s a strong third for whom that is a very appealing option. In a survey I did at the telephone company for my second book, 70 percent of workers said they worked too many hours, and they wished they worked less. And I asked them what was the major obstacle to your working less. Debt came out on top. I had about 20 to 40 percent saying they would like these shorter work-time options. The variety of options being: a day off a week, shorter hours, more vacation.…The popularity of these things depends on what you offer, because they’re not all the same. And the standard form of the question, by the way, is biased against shorter hours. Because it doesn’t specify what would happen to productivity. You have to also tell people how much harder they’re going to have to work, if at all. And are they going to get benefits? These sorts of things. These are key things in people’s minds.

The problem with the people at the lower end is that they really want shorter hours, too. I mean, you have very significant numbers of the lower-wage workers who are working very long hours. Either because they’re in manufacturing firms where there’s mandatory overtime or near-mandatory overtime, or because they’re cobbling together a number of part-time jobs and their wages are so low. They’re on the margin of survival, in a sense. They would like shorter hours, but without the income penalties. The labor movement used to argue for that. That’s a feasible scenario. There’s a lot of money at the top….

CommonWealth: Another interesting part of this debate about spending more hours at work has to do with whether it can be linked to a decline in hours spent doing something else – particularly civic work, work in the public sector. Now, do you have a beef with Harvard Professor Robert Putnam when he says that Americans are less civic because they’re spending too much time sitting in front of the television?

Schor: Well you know, Professor Putnam has had two changes of heart on this topic. So I no longer have a beef with him. [Laughs.] When he began working on this, it was his view that increasing hours of work were important in the decline of civic engagement. He then went through a period of time – coinciding with my absence from the country – I’m sure that was coincidental…[Laughs.] He wrote a preface for John Robinson’s book as you may know, in which he argued that no, working hours are not an issue here. It’s the rise of television that’s been important. And now he’s back to the original point of view, which is that he now has evidence showing that increasing hours of work and time-pressure are directly related to the decline of civic engagement. This is work he has not yet published, and it will be coming out in his book.

CommonWealth: Last night I read the first chapter of The Overspent American, and I was thinking that, though your tone in both of your books is respectful and engaging, when I finished that chapter, my feeling was, what an unflattering picture of middle-class and upper-middle-class America! It’s almost as if underlying the issues that you’re writing about, it’s as if you’re saying, “Look at the way we’re living. We’re pigs.” You don’t come out and say it that way, but that’s kind of how –

Schor: Pigs, in which sense? In the global sense?

CommonWealth: Spending so much. Spending more than we have…

Schor: Oh, pigs like in, “We’re excessive.”

CommonWealth: Yes. Excessive…. I mean, materialistic, status conscious, undisciplined, selfish…. None of those are words you used, but all those are words that came to mind.

Schor: I have a different view of it, in fact. I tried to write a book that was sympathetic to these consumers–not to fool them in any sense, but because, in fact, I feel sympathetic and empathetic. I see the problem as a system which makes it very difficult for people to act in a different way. I don’t see those excesses as somehow personal failings, as kind of moral lapses for the average person. I mean, there is no doubt that we have people who are out of control in their spending in this country. There’s no doubt we have a culture, a marketing and corporate effort, which is trying to make us behave in this out-of-control way. To me, the question is, what are the basic social structures of the consumer sphere that affect people? And there the problem is that we have a consumption sphere, which is organized by social inequalities, gradations, class, groupings, etc. And that’s the crux of the problem. It’s that we have a consumption system that is organized on a competitive basis. And that for people to fail to keep up with whatever the norms are is to descend in a way, which particularly at the current moment is extraordinarily painful…frightening. I see a lot of this behavior as defensive, not offensive. And I think it’s possible that the book came off maybe too strongly in that direction, in some sense.

CommonWealth: It sounds to me like you’re saying we still very much are afraid not to keep up with the Joneses.

“If you don’t keep up with the Joneses, you fail, or your children fail.”

Schor: I think that’s true. I think Americans are very afraid not to keep up with the Joneses. And for good reasons. That’s the way our society is structured. And if you don’t keep up with the Joneses, you fail, or your children fail. You descend into a place in society which is not all that comfortable.

CommonWealth: And people get into big financial trouble for all kinds of reasons. We have a governor in Massachusetts who ran for election while he had $70,000 worth of credit card debt. And he was elected – so it makes you wonder if there’s a big debtors’ vote out there that felt sympathy. There’s a marked increase of people deeply in debt.

Schor: Absolutely. And it’s happening for a variety of reasons. For some people it’s because they’re meeting basic needs through credit card debt. But for a lot of other people it has to do with this middle-class squeeze. It has to do with the people just below basically the $50,000 to $100,000 income category, which is being squeezed because the people above them have up-scaled so drastically. The standards for middle-class life have up-scaled much faster than people’s incomes have grown. And there’s another part to it, which has to do with control problems. We see them in a variety of consumer areas–whether it’s alcohol, drugs, food, etc., American consumers are having more difficulty controlling themselves. Partly it has to do with the fact that the consumer environment is increasingly geared toward people not controlling themselves. This is the way I usually phrase it: The restraints on consumption have progressively been eliminated or loosened. And people are finding it difficult to cope with that. I think that’s something we need to come to terms with about our relationship to consumer culture. We’ve been put into this incredible candy store. And if we’re having trouble keeping our hands off the candy, well, in some sense it’s not all that surprising.

CommonWealth: I’ve heard criticism from a labor market economist who says there really is no, as yet, statistical evidence of what you call a down-shifting trend in the American work force. That you can’t really see from labor market statistics people dropping out or down-shifting, or trying to cut back.

Schor: It’s not anecdotal. I’ve done two surveys in which I asked people, “Have you, in the last five years, undertaken a voluntary life-style change, which entails your earning less money?”… I’ve done two polls; in the first, 28 percent answered that question – the down-shifting question – affirmatively. And the second poll, 19 percent. Remember we also have another significant percent who have been involuntarily down-shifted. And then we have people who are up-shifting.

CommonWealth: It’s difficult for most of us to understand how the economy as a whole could survive if a widespread movement of people were working less and spending less. It sounds to me like it would trigger the Great Depression.

Schor: It depends on how it happens. If it happens suddenly, it would trigger the Great Depression. Maybe even a greater depression.

CommonWealth: That’s what the economy rests on–us going out and spending dollars.

Schor: Absolutely. No question about it. Now, let’s ask the question–what I think is a much more interesting question: How will a gradual shift towards people working less and spending less work itself out in the macro-dynamics of the economy? On the one hand, you have what’s happening in the labor market. Is it going to cause a lot of unemployment? The big problem of the Depression was that a lot of people wanted work and couldn’t get it. If you have a society in which people don’t want to work more, that’s fine. That’s not an economic problem. That’s not a depression. That’s people withdrawing into other activities. They’re in other economies, by the way–the ones you’re not looking at when you say the economy is collapsing. They’re in the household economy. They’re in the civic economy. So if the dominant motive for down-shifting is more time for people, which means that they withdraw their labor from the market, and therefore aggregate demand falls because their spending is less, it’s not creating unemployment, because you’ve got a withdrawal of labor supply. So you could end up with whatever equilibrium level of unemployment you started with, because the withdrawal is coming on both the supply and demand side of the economy. They spend less, or their incomes grow more slowly. But that’s fine. That’s just what they want. There’s no economic problem there from any perspective. I think the problem comes when we think about how does this economy compete with other economies which are growing more rapidly? And the real issue is productivity growth. Can you maintain a competitive level of productivity growth when you have a slow rate of growth of output?

CommonWealth: And can the economy stay competitive? Can America be a competitive economy?

Schor: We’ve got an example of this, which is the Netherlands, admittedly a small country. But it’s a country that had a lot of…not exactly down-shifters, but people who didn’t up-shift in the first place. The political scientists call [them] “post-materialists” – people who earned much less money than a regression analysis would have predicted, based on their education and other things about them. They have the highest labor productivity in Europe. And they have very good rates of growth of productivity. But part of the reason is that they have some policies which address productivity. And, in my mind, the answer to the question, “Can you have a good, competitive, vibrant economy if people are taking productivity growth in the form of income?” – the answer is, yes, but you have to pay a little bit of attention to your productivity. High-growth economies, for reasons we do not understand, have high productivity growth. And so if you grow slowly, you want to make that up somewhere.

CommonWealth: Don’t you think we’re a long way off from the time when Americans want to become more like the Netherlands?

Schor: I don’t. What do you mean by that? If you’re thinking of Netherlands as like a socialist country–

CommonWealth: No. Most of us don’t know much about the Netherlands, but I don’t sense there’s a mood in this country to look to any place in Europe for a–

Schor: Oh, certainly. I didn’t mean to imply by that example that there’s any inclination to look to Europe as a model. What I wanted to imply by the example is that we have an actual case of a country which has down-shifted, in some sense, in terms of its rate of growth of output.… I mean, it’s the great success story of Europe. It maintained very good productivity growth and overall economic statistics. And notice something else about it, which is that it is a country where the four-day workweek has become very pervasive. And you have a long period of quite rapid reductions in hours, and that has been accompanied by tremendous economic success. That’s the reason I raised the Netherlands.

“In Europe, they’re starting to emulate U.S. patterns of working and consuming.”

No, I think the U.S. is very much the pioneer, in terms of these kinds of trends. Because, what’s happening in Europe is that they’re starting to emulate U.S. patterns of working and consuming. But I do believe that we have a significant movement in this country, which consists of dissatisfaction with what I call “work and spend.” And that’s very real. It’s something that I believe progressives and people interested in creating a better quality of life, a better society in this country, should take seriously, and can build on.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
CommonWealth: You’ve been involved in something called the Center for a New American Dream. Can you sketch for us, in broad stroke, how you would envision the new American dream?

Schor: I think one way to think about it is to think about all the possible uses of our economic resources. There’s private status-consumption on the one hand. There’s private consumption which is not status-oriented. There’s savings. There are public goods, and there’s free time. Those are the things we can do with our productive potential. My argument is that private status-consumption has been driving out those other things. Particularly public goods, free time, and savings. And I think this is undermining the quality of life. People are financially insecure, stressed out, people don’t have enough free time, and we have an impoverished public sector. And we have a vicious cycle–people fleeing from public goods to private substitutes, and that further undermining support for public goods. To me, a new American dream would reverse those trends, and basically do more to give us time, financial security, non-status consumption, and public goods.