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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2000 / 14 Shevat, 5760

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Whistling while we work -- There was no big bang as we crossed the threshold of the 21st century, but in one respect we seem to have entered a time machine. "Progress" used to be measured by a more or less continuous fall in the number of hours we had to work–from the minimum 60-hour week decades ago to the classic 40-hour week. But now, in the new millennium, the clock has been put back. We're working longer and longer hours–208 more hours a year than two decades ago. Between 1977 and 1997, the average workweek among salaried Americans working 20 hours or more went from 43 to 47 hours–and the trend is continuing.

The number of workers putting in 50 or more hours a week jumped from 24 to 37 percent. We work more hours than any other country in the advanced industrial world, passing even the fabled Japan. We work the equivalent of an amazing eight weeks a year longer than the average Western European. Nor is this a case of the downtrodden masses. It's the bosses, the managers, and the professionals who are work- ing more–wired into perpetual motion by the pager, cell phone, and laptop. And no one–if we are to believe the polls–seems to be griping. Today, over 80 percent of people at work say they are satisfied with their jobs. Noel Coward's aphorism seems to have come true: "Work is much more fun than fun."

The change in the nature of work has much to do with the fun. In 1900, over 70 percent of us sweat it out on farms and in the tedium of domestic service; today only 2 percent do such work. Only 15 percent of us are in blue-collar industrial jobs, down from 30 percent.

Paradox prevails. Some thought it progress when the first capitalist factory owners took work out of the household, its prime locus for hundreds of years, and moved it to the plant floor, creating a new world of mass wage employment and production. Marx railed against the unfair power to the capitalists, but it was their investment in the factory that created the vehicle most likely to deliver economic success. Now, it appears it is the factory's turn. In a neat back-to-the-future twist, work is being done more and more today in the home.

Physical labor is being supplanted by mental skills, financial capital by intellectual capital. Now what counts is not the mass of labor an employer can deploy but the individual's skill. One person can make a huge difference in re-engineering a company or even inventing a whole new industry. Power has thus shifted from the bosses who financed the factories to the special-skills workers in the information economy and especially in the dot-com world. This sea change is reflected in the nature of compensation. Options, bonuses, and every other conceivable kind of perk are changing the rules of how employees in the spiraling information economy are compensated. The number of dot-com millionaires is astonishing. Stock is the new paper money, as employees participate more and more in the increased valuation of their companies–and valuation has become more relevant than short-term profit. No longer must an employee toil for 30 years to accumulate the capital that qualified him as a millionaire. Now tomorrow is more important than today–and those who can help create the day after tomorrow will be supremely prized.

Does it all sound a little too pat? Well, yes, there are tensions. Most people are not earning more: Total compensation is virtually unchanged over the past three years. Yet people hired with no experience are often coming into offices with pay packages far bigger than those of veteran staffers. The value of long years of hard work and loyalty has been reduced–and that's a loss. Not everybody–yet!--can be a millionaire overnight.

Extraordinary flexibility. But count the gains. New jobs are surging everywhere–approximately 9 million in the past three years. Unemployment hovers at 4 percent–the lowest in over three decades. Inflation is contained. Productivity bounds ahead. Confidence in America's future is at record levels. Our work force has extraordinary dynamism and flexibility. Job hoppers numbered approximately 17 million in 1999, up 6 million from five years ago–and many of them get big raises over their previous salaries. Five years ago, 1 in 10 workers quit his job. Today, 1 in 7 does. Young Americans now change jobs an average of nine times before their mid-30s, until they find the most suitable environment.

"What do you do?"–our favorite question–is more necessary than ever. We define ourselves by our work, and our work, once again, is defining a spectacular change in American life. And we are just at the beginning.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Mortimer Zuckerman