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February 19, 2005

The Eighty-Hour Week

Professor B**** meditates on the eighty-hour week:

B**** Ph.D.: Now, the specific figure Summers apparently mentioned is 80 hours/week. I'm gonna go on record here and say that yes, in most cases, women with young children are not gonna want to work 80 hours/week. Then again, I assume that men with young children also do not want to work 80 hours/week. In fact, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say no one wants to work 80 hours/week. I would even argue that working 80 hours/week, week in and week out, is unhealthy and impossible.

There are 168 hours in a week. Let us say you work 80 of them. That leaves you with 88 hours of non-work time. If you sleep 8 hours/night, as you should--especially if you are doing 80 hours of productive thinking every week, which really would require you to get your rest--that is 56 hours/week of sleep, leaving you with 32 hours. Let's subtract 2 hours/day for meal preparation and eating, and an additional 2 hours for grocery shopping and putting groceries away.... That is 2.29 hours/day to do everything other than work, eat, and sleep.... Now, maybe if you are a single person and you are paid a lot of money, you can hire someone to clean your house and do your laundry, and you can cut back on your eating time by microwaving frozen dinners every night and eating while you relax in front of the tv. That might leave you enough time to shower every day and occasionally go out to buy new clothes. But to presume that this is a reasonable life to ask people to lead is completely insane.

Oh, there may be periods of extreme productivity or inspiration when people can work like that. But regular work on that scale? No. And let's be honest: because it is, in fact, physically impossible to work like that, people don't....

We women-with-kids, we who are so busy 'choosing' not to live this way, we are the goddamn canaries.... Most women do, sooner or later, have children. And so do most men. Any system that is set up so that more than half the population is presumptively disqualified from being part of it is not a reasonable system.

One caveat: without kids, without a significant other, it is possible--if you structure your entertainment and relaxation so that they are part of your work. (Going out to dinner with your fellow assistant professors to talk about the Equity Premium Puzzle, say; or relaxing by sitting in a coffee house with John Wallis and Barry Weingast trying to figure out why ace politician Stephen Douglas so fatally misjudged the mood of the North in the 1850s.) Otherwise... not. If you have kids, have a spouse, you need to have a spouse who enjoys being a "happily married single parent." And then the first and second words of that phrase are likely to drop away...

Posted by DeLong at February 19, 2005 12:42 PM


Professor B**** identifies the problem and then tries to pretend that this is not exactly how the world works in elite academia since it seems so unfair. But this is exactly how it works with the exception that some people work longer hours or reserve more time for themself by sleeping less than 8 hours per night. Instead of getting behind Summers for bringing the issue to the forefront, all Professor B**** has done in most of her commentary is brand him a chauvinist.

Posted by: elliottg at February 19, 2005 12:49 PM

"Any system that is set up so that more than half the population is presumptively disqualified from being part of it is not a reasonable system."

Hard to argue with that. I am unsure tenure is such a system. I don't think anyone works at that rate in when trying to get tenure.

I did work that hard for 6 years, 1990-1996, in a labor of intense love in a job that absolutely required me to be single in that period. On average I could get one day off by month. I loved that job and, after working less 1996-1998, had to leave it because it would have killed me. People who stay too long in that job get weird cancers, etc. I didn't know anyone who could do it intensely for longer than 6-8 years. But theoretically, it's possible. Single, TV dinners, biological ability to get by on little sleep, friends willing to tolerate repeated cancellation of brief social visits, LOL.

The job had a real "macho" atmosphere, unsurprisingly. Interesting that Pres. Summers' conception of the tenure process is imbued with such bravado. Very interesting.

I don't believe it's the reality for tenure. It's not just about time, it's about talent. I guess neither does Summers, really, for he emphasizes the lack of native talent, not time commitments. But, here I confess I don't know what I'm talking about, not having ever gone for tenure.

What say you in academia? Science, tenure-track, 80 hours a week? Really?

Posted by: Nancy at February 19, 2005 12:56 PM

I know a lot of people on Wall Street that worked 60-80 hours a week for years so they could retire at 45.

The interesting thing was that these were the very same people that claimed taxes were so high they were destroying the incentive to work.

Posted by: spencer at February 19, 2005 12:59 PM

What I object to most about Summers is how unnuanced and simplistic his thoughts on these subjects were.

As I thought about it more, I concluded that in fact, almost nobody -- certainly not professor types -- actually works 80 hours per week, every week. There may be periods of intense work (I've gone through these, and hey, I am female and I have children) but I went to a major university and I don't remember even the assistant profs or the graduate students working this hard. I will go out on a limb and say that for many women, Summers also has the equation exactly backwards -- many women stop being willing to work "as hard" as their male peers because they perceive that they will not be rewarded. I used to put my children to bed and work for a few hours and all the rest but stopped when I reached a career plateau and realized that all the extra hours were basically for naught.

I could go on and on, we all could based on personal experience, but one of the things that Summers did not say, is that the hours spent schmoozing and sucking up (was he counting those as work too?) are at least as important as the extra hours in the lab or the library or wherever it is that you do all of your intense work. This is the apect of career enhancement that a woman is most likely to drop because of family responsibilities, and the fact that, as a woman in science, the people you have to schmooze with are so unlike you only makes it seem more of a chore -- there's a natural inclination not to do it anyway. My cousin, a high powered female scientist, left a tenure track position at a major university because she felt socially isolated, and she isn't married and doesn't have children so she had no lifestyle opposition to working extra hours. I think Summers must have been on drugs. And I think that's a charitable view of how simplistic and degrading his comments were.

Posted by: Barbara at February 19, 2005 01:03 PM

Spencer, LOL. Yes, I confess to knowing, um, just a few of those people too.

Well, from childhealth, here's a problem with focussing just on time commitment to explain the women in science problem:

"There is a problem with Summers' argument here: he is trying to explain why women are having trouble getting tenure in math, physics, and economics. However, these disciplines require no more effort than experimental biology or academic medicine, and my sense is that women are doing better there."

Posted by: Nancy at February 19, 2005 01:04 PM

I was a bond trader for a while but quit and went to academia imagining it wouldnt be so high pressure. Then I got divorced the same year I got tenure. It turns out that I was de facto single during most of those years. Most people dont want to live with someone who is married to their job rather than their spouse. In my case its hard to tell since my first wife was also an academic. She got tenure but hires out virtually all of the child care or else leaves it to me. Now I am remarried but I dont work so much either. Looking back I can well imagine picking a more pleasant path but on the other hand being a tenured professor is a pretty good job - You can do whatever you like with the caveat that you have to tell young people what it is while you do it and write some of it down as you go. As long as you can avoid being convicted of felonies, thats about it.

Posted by: steve at February 19, 2005 01:08 PM

Barbara, well put.

And both Summers and people trying to rehabilitate or restyle his entirely offensive speech should at least have the good sense to leave the "I have a daughter too" arguments at home. Arghh. Men had daughters all through the 19th century, when we couldn't vote.

I love how in this and an earlier thread, the women are more likely to speak to actual evidence and examples. I suppose we'll be called overcontextual or too ancedotal in our approach. There's got to be 1,000 ways to avoid looking at discrimination.

I take great solace in one undisputable fact: the progress of women in science don't depend on Harvard or Pres. Summers.

Posted by: Barbara at February 19, 2005 01:12 PM

"Oh, there may be periods of extreme productivity or inspiration when people can work like that. But regular work on that scale? No. And let's be honest: because it is, in fact, physically impossible to work like that, people don't...."

I believe that I would simply delete this paragraph.

Eighty hours a week is not that big a deal, depending on one's occupation. You may not see much of it in academia, but there's plenty of it out in the rest of the society.

I would have loved to have only worked 80 hours a week in some of the jobs I held. Try an average of two or three allnighters per week (sometimes back to back) for a few years. I've done it for 3-4 years at a stretch more times than I care to recall.

Eighty hours a week is nothing...

Research on the working hours of lower income workers will add an another dimension to this point. Some of them are working two jobs for an average of 14 hours a day, not including driving time. Throw in a light eight hour Saturday, and they're at 80 hours.

Sixty hours a week is a good deal. Forty hours a week is minimal effort. At least in industry, retail, services, and a host of other occupations.

Posted by: Movie Guy at February 19, 2005 01:20 PM

From "Seeing the Unseen," book review by Freeman Dyson (URL: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17752):

"The culture of the Cavendish was strongly paternalistic. Rutherford took fatherly care of his students and imposed strict limits on their hours of work. Every evening at six o'clock the laboratory was closed and all work had to stop. Four times every year, the laboratory was closed for two weeks of vacation. Rutherford believed that scientists were more creative if they spent evenings relaxing with their families and enjoyed frequent holidays. He was probably right. Working under his rules, an astonishingly high proportion of his students, including Cockcroft and Walton, won Nobel Prizes."

Posted by: liberal at February 19, 2005 01:41 PM

I agree with Movie guy - 80 hours is totally sustainable, reasonable, even, if you're in the top tier of the private sector. It's also quite typical at the very bottom of the ladder, for different reasons.

To me, the nut of the issue is that the professor assumes that one doesn't like one's work. I mess around with economic issues for fun. If someone paid me to do it, that wouldn't make it more gruelling, it would still be fun. The whole point is that yes, we need time to relax and do things we enjoy. But many of us have the privildege of doing that while working. If you're the kind of A-type person who actually loves blasting through their work, then you can succeed in a career path that demands 80-hour weeks. If you're not, you may want a different career path.

Now, it's a whole other issue as to whether and why that sort of personality is more common in men.

Posted by: Andrew Edwards at February 19, 2005 02:13 PM

I've met quite a few people who do well on 6-7 hours sleep a night, and a handful who are in the 5 hour range. They worked more, and were considered more productive. So I don't think that you can just say its not possible to do this because you need 8 hours of sleep every night. I wish I didn't.

That said, the problem is when we all get measured against this standard.

Posted by: paulo at February 19, 2005 03:04 PM


I know, I know, but really I can not work 80 hours a week. So I watch and think about birds a lot and pretend to work 80 hours.

Posted by: anne at February 19, 2005 03:35 PM

Paulo is right that many people, especially between the ages of roughly 20 - 35, can get by quite well on less than 8 hours a night.

However, the original calculations didn't include commute time, which is at least 1 hr a day for most people, so what one factor takes away, another puts back.

Posted by: alex at February 19, 2005 03:41 PM

liberal, thanks for the link.

I remain curious as to what the alternative to the current system might be - how one could compel post-docs to not log in in the evenings or not come in early if they have to leave early, how to make them not think about their research on the weekends, how to award grants based in part on their freedom to have kids.

Something else to note about academia - people tend to move around a lot. Perhaps it's as bad in the real world, but in physics at least it's almost universal that one's college, grad school (often involving travel and perhaps a station at a distant lab), post-doc position, and faculty job are in different parts of the country or world. It's hard to maintain a stable relationship under those circumstances, to say nothing of raising a family.

Posted by: rilkefan at February 19, 2005 04:15 PM

Who commutes, who sleeps. Are there no counters in the lab? Got a pillow? Put on the coffee, set the alarm for an hour, and collapse. Remember when Kramer on Seinfeld decided to sleep 4 hours like Leonardo? Wound up collapsed and dumped in the river because a girl friend with mob friends figured he had died. Don't need no darn sleep.

Posted by: anne at February 19, 2005 04:16 PM

Prof DeLong, you ever take a cab? Next time ask the driver how many hours he works a week.

Posted by: JR at February 19, 2005 04:21 PM

where I work you get an introductory first day of brainwashing before you go to your regular job, typically run by a high muckety-muck, not by an HR brainwasher. during mine a guy who is now a VP said something like this, with a straight face: "I like to hire graduate students. They are already working 100 hour weeks, so they don't mind when I only expect 80." a comment about both sides of the fence, no? the funny thing is right after that he complained about people turning down his job offers, also with a straigh face. I asked him if he saw any connection between the two, and he didn't smile.

Posted by: supersaurus at February 19, 2005 05:22 PM

The whole Summers debate is so primitive and unfortunately typified by this discussion.

Given that there are so many physical attributes that vary on average between the sexes, ethnic groups, and races (strength, height, eye shape, etc.) is it impossible to believe that invisible traits such as mathematical aptitude, or stamina to work 80 hour weeks also varies?

What is so hard about this? Only a slavish devotion to liberal ideological nonsense!!

Posted by: Tel Aviv Reader at February 19, 2005 05:24 PM

"Any system that is set up so that more than half the population is presumptively disqualified from being part of it is not a reasonable system."

"Half the population"? As Summers clearly said, the jobs in question will only go to those who are 3-1/2 to 4 SDs above average. 99-44/100ths of the population is disqualified right off the bat.

Of the remainder, those who compete the hardest--for the most part--will get the jobs.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at February 19, 2005 05:42 PM


Posted by: at February 19, 2005 05:46 PM

The question is, are those who "compete the hardest" really competing in terms of sensible criteria? There's a lot of useless stuff done in the sciences.

Posted by: Mandos at February 19, 2005 05:49 PM

"Of the remainder, those who compete the hardest--for the most part--will get the jobs."

This is either a statement of faith or of hope or it is circular reasoning. Unless there is actual evidence to support it?

Posted by: Tom Slee at February 19, 2005 05:59 PM

During most of my PhD work I thrived on Sudafed and coffee.

Posted by: Carol at February 19, 2005 06:01 PM

I ran the numbers myself a few years back and got 76 hours a week open for work, if no time for relaxation or fun is taken, and figuring on my very short commute. More work time would require one or more of: a cook, a housekeeper, sending out the laundry, a chauffeur.

Posted by: Jim Lund at February 19, 2005 07:19 PM

I figure I average 45 hours a week at the office, and a bunch of additional time worrying about work. I am a semi-pro singer, and I put in an average of 20 hours a week doing that during our opera season. Add in the time I spend on household tasks and a bit of personal thinking time, and I get myself up to the 80 hours a week we are talking about. I just refuse to spend it all in search of money.

Posted by: masaccio at February 19, 2005 07:51 PM

let us not forget that medical residents are have just had their hours cut back to only 80 hours a week. we do this for years on end and somehow manage to get by, often with partners and children.

it is managable, but it requires enormous sacrifices. that being said, it seems like medicine is one of the most family and female friendly professions these days.

Posted by: japhy at February 19, 2005 07:57 PM

The assumptions about an 80-hour work week are interesting.

I am not a graduate student, but I have had exposure to some in their work in environment. The one's I knew "worked" 80 hours a week. In at 0900, three hours of intense fiddling to get the experimental run up, 3 hours of waiting for it to finish, during which they shoot the breeze, study, eat; followed by a couple hours of data analysis, and then a couple hours of teaching, and then cap it off with two hours of semi-studying or grading, while bullshitting with the night crew. On most days, these folks could have chosen to reduce their work day to at least 10, rather than 16, hours, but they didn't -- because most of their social circle was at work, they were single, and lived in shitty tenement apartments.

These people tolerated long hours, because they were not hard hours. Check in on them before a major deadline, when they were actually WORKING for 80 hours (or more) a week, and they were very stressed, indicating that their regular schedule was different.

I have also seen the workplace at a union shop during strike, when all managers are put onto a mandatory 84 hour work week. I guarantee AT LEAST 30% (50% for a big chunk) of that time was completely unproductive for the overwhelming majority of these people. And ostensibly, many of the corporate ladder climbers were already supposed to be putting in very long hours.

Now, that is rather different from the guy who hangs dry-wall during the day, moonlights on odd jobs, etc: he WORKS for 80 hours a week, and it kills him. What he is being forced into is borderline criminal -- he has no time for his family, which is the only reason he does the work in the first place, and by 40 his body is broken. He often spends the few bits of down time he has drunk to dull the pain of his existence.

So I'd be inclined to agree -- except in very rare cases, an actual schedule of WORK for 80 hours a week is not healthy for an individual, nor is it healthy for a society. Kids don't raise themselves, and if your working 80 hours a week, you aren't raising your kids.

Posted by: Timothy Klein at February 19, 2005 08:07 PM

First of all there are 200 hours per week - 25 hours per day, 8 days a week. It makes the 80 hour work week very tolerable. It also makes the math easier.

Posted by: peBird at February 19, 2005 08:31 PM

Origin (Game software company from the 80's 90's) had the "100 hour" club for folks who put in that much in a week.

And they weren't getting overtime pay.

However, with free meals eaten at the computer, you can avoid shopping and eating time. A cot in the office can reduce the commute time.

(At a different company, I slept with an American flag as a blanket, but that's a different story.)

Posted by: MobiusKlein at February 19, 2005 08:48 PM

As an academic physician who worked his way up the tenure ladder at one of Harvard's Ivy League rivals, I would like to add a few comments from my own experiences.

The 80 hr week: During my internship/residency we worked 100 hrs/wk for months at a time.

Compared to that work schedule, my hours as a post-doc and an assistant prof were much easier. In my first years before being promoted to assoc prof, I typically worked 65-70 hr weeks, except for those weeks when I was on call for the clinical service, when the numbers went up.

The usual work schedule for junior faculty in my department was a full work day, home for dinner with the spouse and kids, then back to the lab for a few hours. Alternatively, you brought the work home and worked after the kids were in bed. Weekends were basically half days. (I was usually home from the lab by 1pm on Saturdays and Sundays.)

Is this doable? - Yes, but the rest of your life suffers. Anecdotally there were a lot of divorces among the junior faculty, with lack of time for your spouse (and kids) the leading cause. Completely reliable (and close) day care was absolutely critical, and a sick child or a doctor's appointment were crises, as they required time away from work. A full time nanny was a must if both husband and wife were on the faculty. Frequently, the wives of male faculty would work in their husband's labs, thereby providing built-in work hour flexibility. You also learned to be inventive. When my son was young, I used to take him to the lab on weekends and keep him in a carrier on my back while I did experiments at the bench.

In our society, it's more difficult to maintain this kind of schedule for women, as they are assumed to hold the primary responsibility for child-rearing. (Officially, reduced time and time off for maternity leave and early child rearing was supposed to be taken into consideration for promotion and tenure, but the bottom line for tenure was: are you a international leader in your field?)

The David Brooks alternative strategy, spawn first, then resume your career after a 10 to 15 year hiatus, is unrealistic in a fast-changing field such as mine. The inverse strategy - tenure first, then breed, is more realistic. But you still run into the issue that getting tenure doesn't solve many of your day to day problems: writing enough grants to keep your lab funded, publishing enough to keep up with your 70 hr/wk competitors, meeting your clinical and teaching obligations, etc. In addition, in clinical departments, you may not get tenure until your early 40's, so your time to breed is short.

I should also point out that the majority of our junior faculty were highly successful, grew to be leaders in their fields, and still didn't get tenure. (This is also the case at Harvard).

So, given the time demands, lack of societal support and low probability of success, it shouldn't be surprising that Harvard is lagging in its recruitment and retention of smart women.

Posted by: Platypus at February 19, 2005 09:22 PM

What if you had a butler, maid, chauffeur (so you could get work done while you travel from anywhere to anywhere else), and so on?

With the right domestic help, I bet you could cram in another 10 or 12 hours a week of productive time, that is, if you consider productive time sitting around and yakking in faculty meetings and the like.

Posted by: Jon Koppenhoefer at February 19, 2005 09:36 PM

When I was working in aerospace, we were told not to have people work overtime for more than a certain amount of time (six weeks maybe?) The research showed that after this period, people went back to doing their normal amount of work - they just spread it out over more hours. I think this is true. It is very easy to spend a lot of time that kind of looks like work but it really much more like shooting the breeze or daydreaming.

So I am skeptical of this 80 hour week system. How many of those 80 hours are really productive thinking and how many are just being seen in the lab by your department head?

Posted by: Emma Anne at February 19, 2005 09:39 PM

Note re my post above: I'm not saying I agree with the sentiments. Just thought the clip was on-topic.

Posted by: liberal at February 19, 2005 10:29 PM

There have been studies on this topic. It seems like sociologists point to rising hours while economists show that people are actually working much less than they think as some have attested here.

And not surprisingly, those who claim to put in the most hours (80-100) are the most off while those who think they put in 40 hours usually work around 35 hours.

(The News Hour had this debate about 5 years ago)

Posted by: remo williams at February 19, 2005 10:30 PM


Posted by: at February 19, 2005 11:02 PM

It's interesting that most of the focus seems to be on the "impossible" claim, and less on the "unhealthy" claim. Yes, residents do that kind of work. They also, I believe, have much higher incidences of drug abuse and car accidents than others of the same social class, etc. Also please note that caffeine, which most of us rely on heavily to pull the hours we pull, is a drug.

I don't assume that one hates ones work: only that one wants ones life to consist of other things, as well. So, for instance, I find it very revealing that one commenter says "I got divorced the year I got tenure" and then goes on to say that being a professor is a great job. I would argue, it is not a great job if it commonly causes pain to those you love and/or costs you your marriage, close relationships with your children, or having kids and a partner in the first place.

Posted by: bitchphd at February 19, 2005 11:25 PM

I've had to live with medical interns and residents who have had to work 80+ hours a week. After seeing what they are like after a few weeks, I don't think it is possible to live a normal life, or be a normal human being working that much over an extended period of time.

As for the folks here bragging about their 80, 90 and 100 hour weeks, two words of caution: recall bias.

Posted by: jml at February 19, 2005 11:29 PM

During the previous 4 years I worked a minimum of 80-100 hours a week at my previous employer. It is 'possible' but at a tremendous cost, financial, mental and physical. No social life. 5 hours of sleep a day. Eat out every day. Fluff and fold, dry cleaning and maid service. 30 min of TV each day. Empty fridge. Random disconnections due to snowballing bills. Severe weight gain. Very non-linear time/money tradeoff for cost incurred for required services. Much worse than grad school in physics. After two years of this I was so crazed that everybody avoided me from 5 am to 10 am giving me enough time to calm down to the point at which I was human. The last 3 years I totally lost track of time. To this day I can barely date events unless they were associated with some major event. When I quit they hired three people to replace me and they are overwhelmed.

Thankfully, I was able to get a new job that dropped my workload to the tolerable 55-65 hour level. My health and sanity have rapidly rebounded and my finances have actually improved despite a moderate drop in pay. The dirty little secret of such hours is that they are tremendously expensive and even at a high flat wage have a ridiculously low hourly rate.

I still have low level PTSD attacks when I come into contact with my previous employer (usually panic calls on things only I know about) coupled with inordinate stress over whether I am doing enough at my present employer.

Constant 80+ hr/wk work is possible but counterproductive for the individual involed both for the low quality of life, high cost of living, and severe mental strain.

Surge periods of 80-100 hr/wk are completely different and much more tolerable, as long as appropriate preparation is made beforehand and wind-down time is alloted afterward. A limited number of vacations or a larger number of lull periods greatly reduce the strain. The constant work without the prospects of a break are what wear you down the worst.

Posted by: SAK at February 20, 2005 12:42 AM

In theory, I think you're right, Tel Aviv reader. There's no biological reason there SHOULDN'T be innate sexual (or racial) differences in, say, mathematical ability, just as there are innate sexual differences in height (or racial differences in melanin).

In practice, though, we as a society have gotten burned so many times when we come up with innate sexual differences -- whether we decided women were incapable of being first-rate writers or we thought they were household angels who helped put moral restraints on the viciousness of the male character -- that the safe position to take on propositions of innate sexual difference is guilty until proven innocent. Some things are robust enough to prove themselves innocent in spite of such a standard, like innate sexual differences in height. Most things are not.


Take the example of percentage of women in physics faculties by country, for example. Which country has the innate natural balance of men and women? Which ones still discriminate? Are women "supposed" to be 25% of faculty, and Thailand gets it right, the the ones with less than that discriminate against women, and the ones with more than that discriminate against men? Should it be 50%, and they all discriminate against women to some degree, though some not very much? (I think this is the most likely?) Do they all massively discriminate, and women are inherently more talented at physics, so they're "naturally" 75% of physics faculty?

Posted by: Julian Elson at February 20, 2005 12:52 AM

Some people can work harder than you, or are smarter than you, or have less social life than you. Do you really envy us? So we get tenure? YOU get a life. Seems like a fair trade to me.

Posted by: walter willis at February 20, 2005 01:50 AM

A society that makes progress not only in economic (productivity) terms but also in social (quality of life) terms should be able to reduce work hours for everybody involved. The U.S. fails this test for both ends of the social spectrum, as someone pointed out above. The question is why? My hunch is that the answer can be found in Brad's post about tenure as a winner-takes-all tournament over ability and effort. Tournaments might have the benefit that they are able to exert the most effort from all participants. But they also act a strong deterrent to participate for all those who have reason to believe they won't win. Which might of course include candidates who have a shot of winning

Posted by: ogmb at February 20, 2005 02:18 AM


Posted by: at February 20, 2005 02:18 AM

"When I was working in aerospace, we were told not to have people work overtime for more than a certain amount of time (six weeks maybe?) The research showed that after this period, people went back to doing their normal amount of work - they just spread it out over more hours. "

Absolutely. At my former employer we had to do productivity analyses of our clients' employees, typically banks and insurers. There was surprisingly little correlation between the average number of hours a department put in and its productivity (quantifiably measurable by such criteria as dossiers handled, calls answered etc).

Partly this was because a lot of their work was driven by external factors i.e if you're an insurance clerk waiting for a report from a damage expert in order to complete a case, you will have to wait a couple of days for that report, whether or not you work six or sixty hours in the intervening time.

There's also an awful amount of slack. We had deployed software that would measure the exact time spent using the core business software. When we counted the numbers the programs would be used for maybe 25% of a workday. Time spent on the phone would account for another 25%. The rest? Talking, toilet breaks, smoking breaks, walking to filing cabinets, walking to printers, wrestling with crashed software, daydreaming, who knows? Most of these companies limited internet access to intranets, so slacking off by reading slashdot all day was out of the question.

Another funny phenomenon: in order to make up on a backlog, one of our clients had weekly "all-evening" sessions for a couple of months, in which everyone was required to work from 8:00 till 22:00. We quickly noticed that the morning after an evening session, productivity fell so low that it would have been more economic not to have such sessions. The increased costs due to extra overtime pay offset the very marginal increase in total productivity that the overtime hours brought.

This was typical, by the way, and none of our clients' employees gave the impression of being slackers.

Posted by: Elliott Oti at February 20, 2005 04:12 AM

What of France and Sweden and Germany and Denmark and the Netherlands? What of scientists, women and men there? What of 80 hour weeks in France? Why is there no science or business in France? Or, is there? How does work ever get done in less than 80 hour weeks in France?

Posted by: anne at February 20, 2005 04:27 AM

What can we learn from others beyond Europe? What of the Canadians or Australians or Japanese? What of emerging India and China?

Posted by: anne at February 20, 2005 04:39 AM

One thing that seems very clear to me is that people who push out bursts of very long hours tend to get so disorganised that they probably aren't producing any more than they do in normal hours: things get lost, mistakes get made, priorities swapped, time and energy wasted on tantrums.

Academia is a good petri dish for this because it has an 80/20 split across time; 80% of the work is concentrated in 20% of the time. For weeks, life continues at a pleasant pace - then the exam script tsunami hits and the next two weeks are spent in a frantic work binge.

Posted by: Alex at February 20, 2005 04:48 AM

Does someone have directions to good discourse on the relationship between total labor and total productivity in an economy, the American economy?

It's tempting to believe that while some work 80+ hours a week out of sheer enjoyment or passion, most do so because they (we, actually) are conditioned in the belief that more work equals more reward and so we join the race. But what are the rewards and who really benefits from the race? Could it be that we race in order to provide more choice in lifestyle for everyone else? Or perhaps we must race in order to enable others in society to emphasize their "ownership" and "wealth" (aka, the investor class, perhaps aka the leisure class, aka, the have-mores) and who do not need to work?

It is clear that we have the system that we have. And yes, our system enables many to "free ride" at the bottom of the income scale. But it's also clear that the friction and even disconnect that we have between our work and our lives is the "soft underbelly of capitalism." It is something other societies are perhaps more attuned to than are we Americans.

Can someone point me to the research on relationship between labor hours and productivity, and who among us needs to work to keep the economy running without borrowing. thanks.

Posted by: starting to wonder at February 20, 2005 05:57 AM


The Revenge of Ellen Swallow

Back in the post-Civil War era, Ellen Swallow yearned to get a graduate degree in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which did not admit women. She wangled her way into classes by doing housework for her professors. "Perhaps the fact that I am not a Radical," she optimistically wrote to her parents, "and that I do not scorn womanly duties but claim it as a privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things is winning me stronger allies than anything else." Faculty members, it turned out, were happy to let her keep darning their socks but not to give her an advanced degree. Eventually, thwarted in her attempts to get a job in chemistry, she married a metallurgy professor and invented home economics.

Generations of women with a bent for science managed to get college teaching jobs because Ellen Swallow Richards figured out a way to connect their field to the analysis of cleaning products. It was something, but not exactly ideal. Today - after another century of discrimination and sexual harassment in the laboratory - female scientists are getting an increasingly large percentage of all undergraduate degrees and they get a little prickly if an extremely powerful man raises the question of whether their field has an inherent sexual divide.

All of which, of course, takes us to Lawrence Summers and his china-smashing remarks on gender and academia. Back in January, the president of Harvard shared his thoughts on why so few women get tenure at the best schools at a conference on "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce." His conclusion - couched in many assurances that the jury was still out - was that female scientists are distracted by the demands of family, and that "there are issues of intrinsic aptitude."

Dr. Summers told his audience that he wanted to be controversial, and if that's so he must be extremely gratified by the results. Several apologies and clarifications later, Harvard now has two brand-new task forces on recruitment of women and a restive faculty that seems to be teetering on the verge of revolt. Last week's release of the long-sought transcript of his remarks is not likely to improve things much. Dr. Summers compared the shortage of female scientists at the highest ranks of academia to, among other things, the shortage of Jewish farmers, and white men in the National Basketball Association. (Coming soon: Female Biologists Can't Jump.)

Dr. Summers's defenders say he is being tarred for the very intellectual openness that places like Harvard are supposed to encourage. Even in the best of circumstances, it's questionable whether the head of an institution that has a bad reputation when it comes to promoting female scientists was the perfect person to free-associate on why women have trouble getting tenure. However, the transcript provides the best possible refutation of the charge of political correctness. Whatever Dr. Summers was doing at the conference, it had nothing to do with serious intellectual inquiry. "I don't think anybody actually has a clue" was one operative phrase. "I don't remember who had told me" was another. It was every woman's nightmare of what a university president thinks privately about equal opportunity.

We have been informed many, many times in the past that Dr. Summers likes to make waves, and who could blame him? It's fun to toss out provocative ideas and watch as everyone's ears redden and all eyes turn to the daring speaker who started the hubbub. But it's an exercise better restricted to radio talk show hosts than the heads of major academic institutions. Harvard is supposed to be teaching its students not just how to start a controversy, but also how to have an intelligent conversation....

Posted by: anne at February 20, 2005 06:37 AM


Where's the Road Beef?

There have been a lot of gaffes about women lately.

And as Michael Kinsley trenchantly observed, a gaffe occurs not when somebody lies, but when he says what he really thinks.

We got a brutal glimpse into the thinking of a certain segment of the male species reading the transcript of the condescending musings of Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, on the "intrinsic aptitude" and "variability of aptitude" of women.

Whatever point he was trying to make, he ended up making this one: It's not female aptitude that's the problem, it's male attitude. He confuses the roles society assigns to women with what women might really want. The "different socialization" Dr. Summers talks about may be getting worse, thanks to goofballs like him. How did he get to be head of Harvard anyway?

We also got a scalding peek into the locker room mentality in Jose Canseco's new book, "Juiced." In a segment called "Slump Busters," Mr. Canseco writes: "As everyone knows, baseball players are very superstitious. Players who are struggling start talking about how they need to go out and find something to break their slump. And often enough it comes out something like this: 'Oh my God, I'm 0-for-20. I'm going to get the ugliest girl I can find and have sex with her.' "

Mr. Canseco nobly points out that he never stooped to this tactic. "I'd rather go 0-for-40," he protests. But he tattled that many of his fellow athletes did seek out "slump busters." What a lovely term used by our sports heroes, our boys of summer.

"It could mean the woman was big, or ugly, or a combination of both," Mr. Canseco explains. He said that golden boy Mark Grace, the former Chicago Cubs first baseman, who seems like the kind of nice guy and good sport you'd want to bring home to mom, defined a slump buster as making out with the "fattest, gnarliest chick you can uncover."

Mr. Grace has talked about slump busters himself in interviews over the years, telling the sports radio talk show host Jim Rome that if a team was enduring a losing streak, the guys would persuade one player to break the curse by going out and rounding the bases with an ugly woman. Mr. Grace called it "throwing himself on the grenade" for the good of the team.

Mr. Canseco agreed: "However you slice it, it was bound to be unpleasant." ...

Posted by: anne at February 20, 2005 06:44 AM

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

There is, or should be, so much more to life than work. Not just vocation but avocation(s). Play, to relieve stress and stimulate the creative juices; quality time with the family, including time to give the kids what they need to raise them up right, or take care of aging parents; quiet time for introspection; time with nature; time for creative artistic endeavors; time for healthful rigorous activity; time for helping others who are in need; time to stop and smell the roses. All this pressure to work, work, work is squeezing the great fruit of the human spirit into a tiny uneasy pulp.

Posted by: Dubblblind at February 20, 2005 08:40 AM

> One thing that seems very clear to me is that
> people who push out bursts of very long hours
> tend to get so disorganised that they probably
> aren't producing any more than they do in normal
> hours: things get lost, mistakes get made,
> priorities swapped, time and energy wasted on
> tantrums.

The nuclear power industry did a lot of research on this in the 1985-1995 time frame. Keep in mind that contrary to the picture painted on the "Simpsons", the average nuclear plant A Operator today has about the equivalent of an MS in Nuclear Engineering (from a non-thesis program).

What they found was that the absolute limit of performance over any length of time was 12x5, or 60 hours week. Any more hours, or any use of uneven schedules (8 hour days, rotating shifts, etc) DRASTICALLY reduced performance and increased mistakes after a few weeks. And led to incredible rates of heart diseases after 20 years.

And in fact that the optimal schedule was 12x4, or 48 hours/week.

But whenever you mention this to a long hours fanatic, they brush it off. They have to get right back to the lab and put in 60 more hours of work on their contract for Springfield Electric....


Posted by: Cranky Observer at February 20, 2005 09:32 AM

Well, I posted a one-line comment asking whether Prof. DeLong had ever taken a cab, and he decided I was a troll, so let's try again, maybe this will get through the troll detector:
Cab drivers are not protected by wage and hours laws. They get no overtime and no minimum wage. and in many cities they rent their cabs for a fixed daily amount. This means they must work very long hours simply to "make the nut," that is, to pay off the daily rent on the cab. After they make that amount, they keep the rest (minus gas). So it's not a choice-- if you don't work the hours, driving a cab is a losing proposition.
Next time you take a cab in a big city, ask your driver how long he works-- you'll frequently be told 12 or 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, year-in, year-out. And these are often men with families. So when Prof B*** says that "it is, in fact, physically impossible to work like that," he's not correct-- there's an entire occupation built around hours like that.

Posted by: JR at February 20, 2005 09:39 AM

There is a considerable body of research to support the problems cab drivers face from limited licensing and ownership to leasing. A difficult market everywhere, with hard and long working drivers. The research is important.

Posted by: anne at February 20, 2005 09:47 AM

See the work of Edward Rogoff on the taxicab industry.

Posted by: anne at February 20, 2005 10:52 AM

Yeah, discrimmination reduces the return on work investment and increases variability.
What's worse is that so many biased people exist and are so hard to detect. If you know that one of your performance analysers is a bigot (against blacks, jews, women, bookworms, southerners, foreigners, etc) you could work for some one else, but you can't tell who they are. Hell, sometimes THEY don't know who they are. They have subconscious bias against their high school math teacher and you look like him, so you must be incompetent or lazy or don't work well with others.
It can be frustrating.

Posted by: walter willis at February 20, 2005 11:41 AM

There have been some very good posts. Let me clear up something that I said early on, and add a few more remarks.

Yes, I believe that working 80 hours a week is possible and not uncommon, depending on one's occupation(s) and circumstances. No, I don't believe it's physically or socially healthy, but that wasn't the issue I responded to in my original post. I was just pointing that it is physically possible and plenty of people work those kind of hours. Many do so involuntarily as a condition of employment or economic necessity. Others are driven by achievement goals, money, or something else ticking inside them.

Andrew Edwards raised an important point: "Now, it's a whole other issue as to whether and why that sort of personality is more common in men."

I wouldn't know whether Type A personalities are more common in men or women. But I will make this observation. Women appear to do far more family household work and coordination than men, regardless of whether the women hold down primary employment or not. I have no idea where that endless stream of energy comes from, but I've seen it. This leaves me with the impression that our original instincts from the earliest tribes may still play a role in our behaviors at the cave (our homes) and out in the forest/jungle (no change here). It strikes me that women get the short end on this deal. But I could be wrong about our original instincts. So be it.

Some posters focused on the loss of efficiency and effectiveness from working longer hours. True and not true in my opinion. It depends on what you are doing and how you are doing it. Yes, I've read many studies and I've disproved a few. How and why? Because of personality dispositions and effective grouping of such individuals into working teams. Some prefer a flex week (flextime), and others prefer a standard 40 hour week.

Personally, I support the flex week. Pull the leadership string, don't push the string. If a group of employees prefer to crank out production in four days and enjoy the benefit of a three-day weekend, I understand the merits of that approach. If others prefer standard hours and a two-day weekend, fine. Just group the employee personalities into team that support the aims of such individuals. Yes, age, family size, and other factors affect such personal decisions. Quality audits that we performed did not reveal major production endproduct differences, by the way.

Physical stress, and mental stress. Ok, both exist in various forms for a multitude of reasons. I suggest that personality types and general conditioning affect the level of tolerance that individuals are willing to endure. Some people thrive on the stress, and others hate it.

My opinions about the desirable length of the work week are straightforward. Optimally, in the best interests of workers and their families, I believe the best range is somewhere between 30 hours and 45 hours per week. This is a comment coming from a former Type A personality performer. Unfortunately, the American economy isn't structured in such a manner as to support that philosophy in general and pressures are applied to enforce overtime (paid or not) among workers in some industries. It's all about higher productivity, you know.

My conclusions are simple. Select your occupations carefully. Decide what is more important to you. Know your limits. Enjoy life at work, home, and elsewhere. And with good fortune, work for decent people.

Posted by: Movie Guy at February 20, 2005 12:08 PM

It's well known that medical residents work 80-hour weeks for stretches of months at a time. It is well documented that this practice results in dead patients.

If the job is important, it merits less than 80 hours a week of work.

I would also note the ease with which many use the phrase "60-80 hour weeks." I have worked 80-hour weeks in the past. I currently work 60-hour weeks, sometimes 70. There is an IMMENSE difference between the two.

Posted by: CD318 at February 20, 2005 12:57 PM


I took Economic History from Prof. John Wallis at the University of Maryland!! Hey Brad.. did you really sit in a coffee house and debate how Stephen Douglas misjudged the North in the 1850's???

[Yes. John was out here on the west coast earlier this month...]

Posted by: Tim at February 20, 2005 01:00 PM

Well, MovieGuy, you and I agree about something: trying to work for decent people. I have decided that trading off a certain amount of pay, prestige and even opportunity to engage in challenging work is worth it if you can work with people who appreciate your work and like you personally.

I would add to your comments and the comments regarding taxi driving: it's physically possible to be "at work" 70 or 80 hours a week. I added my own hours up and I am "at work" at least 60 hours per week (not including commute, but including the average hours I spend at night or on weekends when the kiddies are otherwise engaged), and it only goes up from there. But if you work in a job that requires a great deal of concentration and mental effort and critical thinking (gee, I hope most academics would answer that they do), you are not doing THAT kind of work for 70 or 80 hours a week. Hence, a taxi driver really could be "at work" for a very long time. But this is why for certain types of jobs -- airline pilot for example -- limited work hours are enforced. Certain types of doctors really should be in this category -- the number would be high, and but not nearly as high as it is now (enforced breaks would be a real plus -- for instance, no 24 hour shifts unless after a 24 hour break -- the total weekly could still be quite high, but there would be sleep or rest requirements). But the main thing is that it does depend on the job and what it requires. I also thought it interesting that few responded to my comment on the "soft work" aspects of professional and academic jobs that are really what (I believe) set many women apart from their male peers -- the willingness to schmooze and socialize with ones' colleagues, everything from attending conferences, lectures by visiting academics, happy hours, and all the rest of it. This is still "work" and I agree that some of it is necessary, but it's much harder to justify when you have a family beckoning. In my professional job, we actually have an hours target for this sort of thing -- I personally think most people pad like crazy, but there you go.

Posted by: Barbara at February 20, 2005 01:01 PM

Barbara's right. Over the last half of that 80 hours I suspect our marginal product is dropping pretty fast -- a lot faster than for taxi-driving. You can always read one more article in the cause of "keeping up with the literature" or try to squeeze out one more paper or do one more conference. Nobody will tell you to stop. Especially when you're up for tenure, it's hard not to overfunction, even to the point that your marginal product goes negative. And among the pressures are people like Summers -- if you were approaching tenure, and he was your chair and had said this thing about 80 hours, would you be knocking off at 5? Especially if you knew that you'd be evaluated partly on "potential," you'd want that light on in your office.

Posted by: Colin Danby at February 20, 2005 03:09 PM

Depends on the department, but I don't think gender disparity is just among the top departments. I would think one could get tenure (in economics) without killing yourself at a top 50, yet I suspect the disparity is still there.

I was talking with a woman who got tenure at a top 5 econ dept a few years ago and she was telling me (prior to tenure) what her life was like -- whether or not she technically could bill 80 was almost irrelevant. Her time was simply not her own. One would think fecundity decisions would have to be made with tenure issues in mind.

Posted by: cb at February 20, 2005 05:10 PM

Some years ago I was working a mix of 60-80 hour weeks and also taking flying lessons. My instructor could easily tell the difference in my flying when I was tired, and remarked that he had another student who was a doctor and had tried to do a lesson straight off a 24-hour shift, with even worse performance.

I have noticed in reading history that many of the strangest and most serious errors of judgment have been made by people who were exhausted or were working when they would normally have been sleeping.

In WWII, numerous strange errors of judgment were made by US Navy commanders in the Battle of Savo Island off Guadalcanal, and by Japanese commanders in the Battle of Leyte Gulf; in both cases, their forces had been under intense operational stress for days in tropical heat, and under intense air attack throughout the preceding day.

The Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island incidents were both caused by errors in maintenance procedures in the wee hours of the morning.

Posted by: jm at February 20, 2005 07:36 PM

There is a difference between being at work for 60 to 80 hours per week and working 60 to 80 hours per week.

Posted by: Mark at February 20, 2005 11:32 PM

Nobody spends two hours a day grocery shopping and putting groceries away! Maybe once or twice a week, but not every day, day in and day out.

Posted by: HalF at February 21, 2005 12:00 AM

What an incredible life!
In fact, if you count it, we frequently work more than 80 hours in company or at home.

Posted by: Creford at February 21, 2005 02:54 AM


That was two hours a week I think.

Posted by: Kramer at February 21, 2005 06:55 AM


Thanks for posting the NY Times editorial. I'm hoping it was actually written by a friend of mine who attended Harvard and is on their editorial staff. It sounds like him. A whole paragraph dedicated to "c'mon, this was *not* intellectual inquiry." That's very accurate aim, the aim of a former litigator for the ACLU. I'd put money on it, I know that writing style. Go AC.

Posted by: Nancy at February 21, 2005 07:41 AM

According to U of Cal Irvine's Richard Haier:


In general, men have approximately 6.5 times the amount of gray matter related to general intelligence than women, and women have nearly 10 times the amount of white matter related to intelligence than men. Gray matter represents information processing centers in the brain, and white matter represents the networking of - or connections between - these processing centers.

This, according to Rex Jung, a [U of New Mexico] neuropsychologist and co-author of the study, may help to explain why men tend to excel in tasks requiring more local processing (like mathematics), while women tend to excel at integrating and assimilating information from distributed gray-matter regions in the brain, such as required for language facility. These two very different neurological pathways and activity centers, however, result in equivalent overall performance on broad measures of cognitive ability, such as those found on intelligence tests.

The study also identified regional differences with intelligence. For example, 84 percent of gray-matter regions and 86 percent of white-matter regions involved with intellectual performance in women were found in the brain's frontal lobes, compared to 45 percent and zero percent for males, respectively. The gray matter driving male intellectual performance is distributed throughout more of the brain.

According to the researchers, this more centralized intelligence processing in women is consistent with clinical findings that frontal brain injuries can be more detrimental to cognitive performance in women than men. Studies such as these, Haier and Jung add, someday may help lead to earlier diagnoses of brain disorders in males and females, as well as more effective and precise treatment protocols to address damage to particular regions in the brain.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at February 21, 2005 08:39 AM

The absolute dearth of posts on political and academic blogs today (2004/02/21 - Presidents Day in the US) confirms my impression about the so-called "80 hour week". While working on holidays is a good way to get a lot done, when doing so one tends to take more breaks and goof around more than on a normal day. That would imply there should be more, not fewer, blog posts today. But there aren't.


Posted by: Cranky Observer at February 21, 2005 09:22 AM

Enforce the heck out of 40-hour work laws, and even extend them to the formerly "exempt"...

Posted by: Neil' at February 21, 2005 05:43 PM

[comment spam]

Posted by: at February 21, 2005 06:23 PM