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Chris Strahorn's parents haven't seen much of him lately.  They're usually asleep by the time he gets home, anywhere between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. And he's often asleep when they leave for work. If his car is in the driveway, they know he made  it back. (Sometimes his father says hi to the car.) If not, it's a safe bet that  Strahorn, a 24-year-old computer programmer at an Internet start-up called the  Tomorrow Factory, has pulled another overnighter, grabbing a few hours of sleep on his futon. Most of his colleagues prefer the sofa that the company has  thoughtfully provided. Strahorn likes the relative calm and quiet of his cubicle. He sleeps under his desk, for the darkness, and close to his computer,  for the warmth.

Wherever he has slept, he tends to have breakfast at the Morning Brew Coffee Co. in the same small South San Francisco building as the Tomorrow Factory. The  Morning Brew was there first. When the Tomorrow Factory moved in over the  summer, the founders installed a door between the two places. Thanks to that piece of foresight, the Tomorrow Factory' s thermoses are kept steadily filled with freshly ground Sumatra. Some of the employees, says Strahorn, think it may  be time to add a "direct line--an intravenous tube."

Young computer whizzes with stock options may not be broadly representative  of the contemporary work force. But in one  respect--crazy hours--the Silicon Valley ethos speaks for America these days.  Between 1977 and 1997, the average workweek (among salaried Americans working 20 hours or more) lengthened from 43 to 47 hours. Over the same years, according to James T. Bond, vice president of the Families and Work Institute, the number of workers putting in 50 or more hours a week jumped from 24 percent to 37 percent. Scarcely a decade ago, Americans viewed the work habits of the Japanese with half-horrified awe. Now, according to a recent report of the International Labor Organization, the United States has slipped past Japan to become the longest-working nation in the advanced industrial world.

The trans-Atlantic gap has become a chasm, with the average American working the equivalent of an astonishing eight weeks a year longer than the average Western European. In Norway and Sweden, ordinary workers get four to six weeks of vacation and up to a year of paid parental  leave. In France, a 35-hour maximum workweek, promoted by the socialist  government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin partly as a way to cut unemployment,  is becoming the law of the land

Reality check. No doubt, many Americans would like a piece of that inaction. But any jealousy on the part of U.S. workers might be checked by a peek at the recent economic record. Roughly 10 percent unemployment is the norm across much of Western Europe, with its already-successful efforts to reduce working hours.

By contrast, work-happy America is enjoying  unparalleled prosperity. Unemployment is at a three-decade low of 4.2 percent. Inflation remains tame, despite an annual growth rate that hit 5.5 percent last summer. By the end of January, the economic expansion will be more than 106  months old, the longest in U.S. history.

In France itself, sneering opponents of the 35-hour week tell tales of government inspectors lying in wait for executives who exceed the current 39-hour limit. Even with some allowance for artful exaggeration, it seems hard  to figure how Silicon Valley could ever have existed under such an arrangement. Innovation and demonic commitment tend to go hand in hand, after all.

And we are talking about consenting adults, with the kind of ambitions that  Americans have always lauded. They dream of technological breakthroughs, money,  and, in the words of Robert Tsai, a 25-year-old computer programmer: "someday  living comfortably with my loved ones off the fruits of my labor now, and being just as productive in a leisurely 35-hour workweek as the next generation of  young-punk whiz kids working 60-hour workweeks."

Paying the bills. Many Americans, of course, work long hours for less intoxicating reasons. Mary Fowler, who is 53  and lives with her two grandchildren in Baltimore, works as a school custodian. A year ago, an ambulance took her to the hospital after she passed out while cleaning up in a portable school annex. ("It  was hot," she says.) Although she left the next morning with a clean bill of health, the tab came to $3,000. Fowler had no medical insurance. To pay for her  hospitalization, she took a weekend job as a caterer. To free up the time, she cut down on her volunteering at a local church.

Or consider Raymond White, who catches chickens--thousands a day, in huge and  smelly chicken houses up and down the Delmarva Peninsula for the Frank Perdue processing plant in Accomac, Va. A typical shift runs about 12 hours, with  travel time included. White, who nets about $400 a week, doesn't receive  overtime, having been classified as a farm worker rather than a food-processing worker--a company claim that he and his fellow catchers are challenging in court. But his grievance is basically about the pay, not the hours.

Most days, in fact, White works an additional five hours or more in the produce department at a Wal-Mart near his home in Pocomoke City, Md. While he is lucky to squeeze in four hours of  sleep, he hopes the extra money will help send his two children to college. The  Wal- Mart job also provides health insurance--something he lost in 1991, when,  in another contested move, White and his fellow catchers were "fired," and  immediately rehired, but as employees of their crew foreman acting as Perdue contractors. Perdue, White also notes, has been experimenting with a vacuum-powered chicken-catching machine, so he figures it's good to have a backup job.

In the legal business as in the chicken business, firms have grown bigger and  competition more intense. Today's high-powered law firms are pyramids in which  armies of young associates vie for a comparative handful of lucrative partnerships, competing in the coin of "billable" hours. In the old days, says a wistful escapee from the Washington, D.C., office of one large firm, adversaries in a lawsuit cooperated to "keep costs and blood pressures down." Nowadays, he  says, if you' re writing a motion knowing that your opponents will have 10 days to reply, you deliberately file it on a Friday, compelling your opposing lawyers to work two straight weekends. "It's just the way the  game is played," he explains.

Information age blues. The longer-hours trend first surfaced in the late '70s. Many Americans began working longer, says economist Frank Levy, to get ahead, or avoid falling behind, in a period of  stagnant or declining wages for all but the highest earners. But it is managers and professionals who, broadly speaking, work the  longest. Indeed, hours have increased as much as they have in part because far  more Americans (34 percent of the work force, compared  with 27 percent in 1977) hold such jobs. But, of course, hours give an incomplete picture of the transition from the industrial to the information age.

Over the past century as a whole, physical work has  become easier, and work has become less physical.  White-collar workers, however long they work, have more control over their time than factory workers. (Jobs with rigid schedules cause  much more stress, studies have shown.) Increasing numbers of Americans can make phone calls to friends from the office, or drive over to the mall during their  lunch breaks.

Working hours, too, have come down over the long term. In 1900, men in America worked 10-hour days and six-day weeks in factories, and even longer on farms; shorter hours were mostly  the lot of desperate people who couldn't find work. Housewives, like domestic servants, probably put in 72-hour weeks. Vacations  were an exotic concept enjoyed by less than 2 percent of the population.

America was built on a foundation of hard work as well as natural bounty. As an immigrant nation, the United States benefited from a large pool of workers self-selected for their long-term horizons and their  readiness to endure hardship in the here and now. "Everyone is running to and fro, pressed by the stomachache of business," one observer, Frederic-Auguste  Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, commented in 1871.

After World War II, the workday shrank to eight hours and most Americans got weekends off. At the height of union power in the 1960s, workers commonly expected to retire at age 55. No more. With the erosion of big-company pension  plans and doubts about the long-term viability of Social Security, many Americans feel pressed to work harder in order to pump  up their savings--even as they steel themselves to work until they are 70 or older.

No place like work. Of course, the 60-hour weeks of many modern managers and professionals include lunches, travel, and perhaps a certain amount of macho exaggeration of hours. In some of the  longest-working professions, the amenities have reached  a level that is almost comical. In Pittsburgh, Deloitte Consulting has created a  sleeping room. In San Francisco, employees of Charles Schwab can call on a concierge service to make their dinner reservations or do their gift buying.

Even so, longer hours are taking their toll, especially on working parents. Three years ago, Nancy Outenreath, a regional manager for a large health care chain, consulted Fehrunnisa Moore, one of a growing number of "coaches" who advise the work-crazed inhabitants of  Northern California. As a result of their sessions, Outenreath asked her boss  for Wednesday afternoons off, allowing her to take her 12-year-old son to violin lessons. She began getting up at 5:30 a.m. herself in order to get to a local health club for exercise. And in the most dramatic of her innovations, she sold  her son and husband, a psychiatrist, on the idea of sitting down to a home-cooked dinner every night without the TV on.

For Outenreath and others up and down the income ladder, the goal these days is work-life "balance," and it doesn't come easy. Requests may be denied. Or they may be granted at an unknown price. "This couldn' t have come at a worse time," Juliana Rice was told when a partner at  her Boston law firm heard she was pregnant. Rather than run the risk of being  perceived as undercommitted, many employees don't ask for favors. But, as sociologist Arlie Hochschild observed in her book The Time Bind, the dynamic is more complicated than that.

In nostalgic (and mostly male) visions of postwar America, dinner was  virtually on the table by the time Dad came home, though  he always had time to throw off his shoes, sit back in his easy chair, and be fussed over by his wife and kids. Now men and women alike will come home after 7 p.m. to face cacophony and disorder--and a  series of uncommenced tasks that somehow have to be compressed into a couple of  hours before everybody collapses. Small wonder, says Hochschild, that some  parents prefer to linger at their far calmer and more supportive workplaces.

On the road again. Certainly, different people define "balance" differently, and many are grateful for seemingly small concessions. Cynthia Towell' s job as  a management consultant often takes her far from her home and three children in suburban Dallas. Her husband, Dwin, a  technical director of televised sports events, travels almost as much as she does. Still, Towell counts herself lucky. While many of her peers are stationed  at client-companies five days a week, her employer, Ernst & Young, lets  consultants fly back on Thursday and spend Friday in the home office. Because her husband's traveling is concentrated on the weekends, one parent or the other can usually be home with the kids at night. Finding time to spend with each other is trickier- -"We're working on that," she says.

Bruce Angus searched his soul when, an E-commerce start- up in White Plains, N.Y., dangled the prospect of a vice presidency before him last  spring. With fatherhood looming, Angus worried about the demands of such a job, though it came as a shock to him recently when his wife, whom he considers a  "straight shooter," told him he was working 100-hour weeks.

Both finally agreed, however, that the chance to help build the first  "premium high-end luxury retailer online" was too good to pass up. He considers it an achievement that he generally manages to get home in time to catch a glimpse of his 9-month- old daughter, Sophie. And when she's older, Angus points out, she won't remember how little she is  seeing of him now. "If you've got to sacrifice time with your children," he concludes, "it might be better that it happens real early in life."

After his daughter goes to sleep, Angus goes back to work making phone calls for about two hours on a typical evening. The  opportunity to work at home is another blessing for his family, he says. But  while it is often presented in that light, working at home doesn't turn out that way for everyone.

"I'd get up at like 7 in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, and get in on the  E-mail," says Joe Cortale, an Internet executive, recalling a telecommuting  arrangement that became one of the worst jobs of his life until "my wife had a  sit-down with me." Because he was on the East Coast dealing with West Coast  people, Cortale would break briefly for dinner, and then " it was back upstairs in the home office."

At what price? Indeed, some analysts think that telecommuting may have made a  significant contribution to America's recent productivity gains. It's a  "win-win" situation for companies and workers, according to a recent assessment  by the outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. In fact, while  management gurus talk about "working smarter, " the data  lead some economists to suggest a slightly less high-minded explanation of our current prosperity. Longer hours alone, says Jared Bernstein of the Economic  Policy Institute, go a long way toward explaining the roughly $300 annual income gain the average American registered between 1989 and 1996.

The economy has certainly been growing--in the conventional sense, but also  in a new one, as the world of work and money come to  occupy more space in the whole of American life. The gains seem fairly clearer  to many economists, and to many workers. The costs on the family and community  end are only beginning to be sorted out.

But while Americans aren't necessarily boasting about their newfound status  as the foremost workaholics of the Western world, they aren' t clamoring for a 35-hour workweek either. And in the nation's cutting- edge experiments with the  new realities of both longer and fuzzier hours, many workers are fumbling their way toward better ways of managing time at work as well  as home.

Sharon Chiu's worst trial was a six-week period without a day off several  years ago. As the comptroller of a company now known as ClickAction, she was going in to work at 5 a.m. and coming home at 10 p.m. while preparing for an initial public offering. On her  arrival, she would wash dishes and make the next night's dinner, having vowed to  cook for her family even if she couldn't eat with them.

Mommy dearest. One night at the end of the third week, she agreed to come home early--at 9 p.m.--in response to her daughter's  urgent plea for help with a homework problem. After they had worked it out, Chiu's daughter broke into a torrent of tears. "Now that I don't have a homework problem, I won't see you again," she said.

Although Chiu never consulted a coach, she got some unexpected support two years ago, when Gregory Slayton became ClickAction's chief executive officer.  Slayton had strong feelings about overwork, left over from a domestically  calamitous period of his own life when, while commuting to Buenos Aires for McKinsey & Co., he missed his wife's birthday and their anniversary in the same year.

At ClickAction, employees are actively discouraged from lingering too late in  the evening or coming in on weekends. The typical hours- -55 to 65 a week--are not exactly slack by any but Silicon Valley standards, but they have been a useful recruitment and retention tool, according to Slayton, and generally  beneficial to the bottom line. (ClickAction's stock is currently trading at 10  times its price when he arrived.)

Extreme hours cause costly mistakes, he argues, and people interrupt each  other frivolously, on the assumption that the real work will be done at night. "The one thing you can't do in this company is waste somebody else's time," he says. "That's dismissable." Slayton takes a  particularly dim view of unnecessary or undisciplined meetings-- "the biggest single sink-time" in corporate life, to hear him tell it.

At ClickAction, getting out the door at a reasonable hour has become a minor goal unto itself. "Nobody wants to be at work at 10  p.m.," Slayton says. "The whole company kind of rises to the challenge."


Kids and killer hours

Paige Manning, a 34-year-old Boston lawyer currently on maternity leave, expects to go back to work full time in a few months. She tried a four-day-a-week arrangement after the birth of her first child-- and  found herself coming to the office on Fridays anyway, to be "in the swing of the  deals."

In her disinclination to cut back, Manning resembles most working mothers and fathers these days. And like many parents, she worries about the effect on her children.

Chill, pop. Most kids, according to Ellen Galinsky's new book Ask the  Children, care less about working hours than work stress--their biggest complaint is the frazzled  parent who can't slow down.

Of course, many children of hard-working parents have never experienced anything else. And as Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, points out, memories that children  cherish tend to involve repeated routines rather than, say, gifts or grand vacations.

The working-parent debate, says sociologist Arlie  Hochschild, has become polarized between "scolding traditionalists" and "sunny  moderns." If the questions could be explored more freely, she suggests, parents  might be less eager to "stuff 60-hour workweeks and raising a family into the same decade." There might be more interest, she adds, in "kicking back to  something like a 60 or 70 percent schedule and then continuing to work past age 65."

Different children have different needs--that's Steve Johnson's take. After  years of writing software, Johnson became a "house husband" at age 55, to be  with his 14-year-old son. (Johnson's wife is a programmer.) As proof that some  children get along fine with long-working parents, he  points to his 26-year-old son--"a latchkey kid like you wouldn' t believe"--who  manages an Internet start-up. Alas, says Johnson, they don't see much of each  other. His son recently came over for Sunday brunch. Soon after arriving, he got a couple of phone calls and ran off to work.


Life inside a Silicon Valley start-up

At hundreds of start-ups across Silicon Valley, computer whizzes are setting the tone for the national work- a-thon. What makes them  tick so fast?

"Everybody knows I don't have a life," says Ken Exner, who lives about five  minutes from the Tomorrow Factory, the little company he founded a year ago in  South San Francisco. David Kerley, the director of marketing, also sets a strong  example of dedication to the enterprise. And often there's nobody for him to go home to either, because his wife works equally crazy hours on mergers-and-acquisitions deals at her Palo Alto law firm.

Eight days a week. Co-worker Dylan Greiner's marriage almost broke up five years ago, after a stint of 12-hour days at a software  company in Texas. "A lot of lifestyle changes were made," says Greiner. Yet he, too, has embraced the start-up life, including an hour and a half commute from his home near Modesto.

Early next year, they will launch their product--a form of personal shopping management software whose wonders they cannot yet divulge. Then they'll have a better idea of the prospects for a financial windfall and the prizes that Greiner dangled before his dubious wife and sons: a house in the Bay Area, long vacations, and perhaps never having to work again.

But when he and his colleagues speak of never working again, they don't really mean the Tomorrow Factory, with its ridiculously long days and nights. They're thinking of the work they have done before and may yet have to do, in the statistically  probable event that they don't hit the stock-market jackpot. They mean work for large impersonal companies with departments and  divisions and impenetrable layers of status and power.

In his past jobs, Kerley's function was "to do, to deliver, to perform, " he says. "Here I get to create. There aren't many people who are lucky enough to be  doing what they love and to be in a really hot area of the economy. I have a lot of friends who were psychology majors but they're working as secretaries."

Before he joined the Tomorrow Factory, Greiner had a nice thing going at a software company in San Mateo, where he was required to do overtime just once in 18 months. From a domestic point of view, he says "it was a dream job. But it was pretty boring."

Chris Strahorn, a 24-year-old programmer, worked at Sun Microsystems for three years while pursuing an as-yet-unobtained degree in  computer science at the University of California-Davis. He put in some 60-hour  weeks at Sun. He says he'd sooner work 100 hours a week in the small and collegial setting of the Tomorrow Factory, working on something he believes in. A few years from now, he hopes to be  in a position to say, "That's mine--I wrote that--and it's sitting on a million desktops."

By James Lardner; Trena Johnson ; ; By James Lardner; Trena Johnson, World-class workaholics. , U.S. News & World Report,  12-20-1999, pp 42

[Workaholics] || [MOTHER KNOWS BEST] || [Balancing business & baby] || [at-home moms] || [Home Work] || [Flexible work styles] || [The Happy Home Office] || [Teleworking]


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