Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Great (Work) Happiness Debate

We've heard it before. Americans are working more and getting paid less; job security's nothing like it used to be. A study in 2006 showed that American working families are clocking in 11 extra hours of work per week compared to their 1979 counterparts, and those who hold professional positions in medicine and law now consider a 40-hour workweek “part-time.” While I’m in neither of those professions, 40 hours is definitely part time for me.

The 50-hour workweek is the new 40-hour workweek in the high-powered world, and if you don't agree, you could be in for a pay cut. The Center for American Progress report highlighted in the Huffington Post states that professional women get pressured to put in longer hours, noting “'Part-time' [female] lawyers often take an immediate wage cut of 20 percent per hour for a 'part-time' schedule of 40 hours a week.”

And we get little comfort from economist Todd Buchholz if our salaried positions are sneaking in extra time. Buchholz began a writing a book about how we're torturing ourselves trying to make it in the rat race, and then he concluded that the rat race was what makes us whole.

In other words, the pursuit of success is actually what makes us the happiest.

The frontal lobe craves action, and in a life of leisure? Confusion, followed by brain-withering—Buchholz points to retirement, which he says ages us. At least it's comforting for those pulling 50-hour workweeks with paychecks better suited to 40 hours.

In Buchholz's train of thought, perhaps increased hours represent a change in employee lifestyle. Are we defining ourselves by our jobs more than before? Community involvement can't hold a candle to the good ol' days of knowing thy neighbours, and now that we're always plugged in, it's even harder to unplug to pursue hobbies or socialize. As companies try to foster quality “employee engagement,” wouldn't that inspire us to work extra hours in return for feeling valued?

We're looking at black and white when we should get out a palette and start mixing for the right shade of Compromise Gray. While Buchholz says we need to work to stay happy, we're not sure how much we need to work to stay happy.

Surely it's relative. Will the part-time life—“Rat Race Lite”—still suffice as long as we feel we're getting ahead? I’m not so sure.

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