America's workers: Stressed out, overwhelmed, totally exhausted

Economists have noted how work hours for white collar, college-educated workers began to become extreme in about the 1980s, and at the same time, social surveys were picking up a heightened sense of economic insecurity in this same group. Some people say we’re working more because we want more stuff (like that stupid Cadillac commercial that made me so angry I wrote a piece about it). While it’s true that household debt and spending on “luxury” items have gone up at the same time, it’s also true that wages have been stagnating and the costs of basic things like health care, housing, and education have gone through the roof—the cost of college has blown up nearly 900 percent in recent decades. When was the last time anyone outside hedge fund managers and the 1 percent got a 900 percent raise?

Against that backdrop comes technology and the ability to be connected 24/7 – which leads to a feeling of constantly being “on call,” that you can never quite get away from work, that the boundaries that used to keep work more contained have bled and spilled over into the hours of the day that used to be for family, for self, for leisure, for sleep.

All you have to do is look at some fascinating work done by consulting companies, when they ask CEOs and top managers at companies around the world who they think the best employees are, more than three-fourths have said: the worker without any family or caregiving responsibilities. In other words, the distant father provider of the 1950s. I say father because social science has found that married men with kids actually earn more money—what they call a “fatherhood bonus”—because the workplace culture assumes this man will now work harder because he has a family to support. Never mind that for some 40 percent of households with kids under 18, the single or primary breadwinner is mom. That same social science finds a motherhood penalty—a pay gap that can’t be explained by anything other than the fact that the woman has children, another sign of the consequences of our society’s ambivalence about working mothers. I was so struck by how this “ideal worker” norm is still so powerful and still so gendered in our workplaces and often, largely unconscious.