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Overwhelmed and Overworked: The Myth of American Productivity

... finally seemed back on track during the first few months of 2004. ... crowed that "Our tax cuts are ... Then, without warning, job growth slowed to a crawl, ... in a def

Employment finally seemed back on track during the first few months of 2004. Politicians crowed that "Our tax cuts are working." Then, without warning, job growth slowed to a crawl, resulting in a deficit of more than 2 million jobs from that confidently predicted only a year ago. To counteract that dismal performance, public emphasis turned to another indicator, productivity. The reported increases in American productivity are quite genuine. Individual worker output collectively rose, from 2000 to 2003, by a full 12 percent. Definitely a bonus for Wall Street - but what about Main Street?

As the meticulous research of the Economic Policy Institute shows (Snapshot, 09/08/04), real family income fell, over the same period, by 3 percent. Contrast this with the economic period of 1947 - 1973 when productivity and real family income moved in tandem, both doubling over those years.

What does this suggest?

Americans are working harder and longer for less family income. As companies downsize or fail to replace workers who leave or retire, fewer staff are left to handle the workload. In fear of losing their own jobs, they respond by accepting new duties and new responsibilities and the added work time that accompanies them. In a world where employees are tethered to their workplaces virtually around the clock, by laptops, cell phones, and blackberries, the traditional balance of home and work has crumbled.

There is a tendency to believe that such pressures are only operative for the ambitious, career-obsessed, "Apprentice"-like, ladder climbers. In fact, the sixty-hour-plus workweek affects a substantial portion of all salaried workers, even down to front line supervisory staff.

The American worker, surveys clearly show, is becoming overwhelmed, over-tired, and fed up. Access rates for outpatient mental health services rise steadily each year. Family disruptions include increased estrangement, divorce, emotional child neglect, and domestic violence. Health problems multiply, fueled by fatigue, stress, and a lack of time for self-care. In the vaunted new technical world, where leisure time was to be expanded to historic proportions, we are working longer, harder, and more diligently than ever.

Where can we look for answers?

We can look at ourselves, identify our priorities, and learn to spend our time on what is important to us and let the rest go. More critically, we can speak up to make sure that social legislation and the tax code create similar priorities: to reward those companies who staff adequately and flexibly and provide benefits and resources to their employees. At the same time, we need to negatively impact companies who pursue such activities as job outsourcing, retiering of job titles to avoid overtime costs, dependence on temporary (usually none-benefited) labor, and the quiet acceptance of third world manufacturing of their products under sordid conditions, the use of child labor, and payment of slave wages.

CEO salaries are running more than 130 times the median worker salary. Viewing the ethical and procedural problems of major corporate figures, now mired in the legal systemPsychology Articles, Americans must start to ask whether equality and opportunity for all is still a viable creed.

Article Tags: American Productivity, Family Income

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Virginia Bola is a licensed clinical psychologist with deep interests in Social Psychology and politics. She has performed therapeutic services for more than 20 years and has studied the results of cultural forces and employment on the individual.She is the author of an interactive workbook, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a monthly ezine, The worker's Edge. She can be reached at

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