Monday, February 28, 2005

The Fallacy of the 80 Hour Week

Larry Summers famously stated that tenure-track at Harvard requires eighty hour weeks and that’s part of the reason women are not competitive in mathematics disciplines. We hear a lot about it, but does it really mean anything, this spectre of eleven hours a day, seven days a week with an extra hour or two thrown in?


I know it’s the in thing to be over-extended, to complain about never enough time and an office schedule that just won’t quit. With apologies to the few who are actually victims . . .


  • Those working their way through college while carrying a full credit load

  • The poor, working days at McDonald’s and cleaning Wal-Mart at night

  • Single moms with full time jobs and no home help (120 hr. weeks?)

. . . the majority of complaints out there are due more to ‘flying the flag’ than necessity. Those tenure-trackers at Harvard are likely to be watching each other, wandering the halls to see who’s light is on, bullshitting in small clusters and doing most anything except actually working a double schedule. It’s a guy thing . . . women don’t actually do much of this because they’ve always been too time stressed culturally and could be that’s why women aren’t filling their numbers in math tenures . . . but that’s another subject.


Guys are wary of not being there. It’s a throw-back to our pre-civilized history.  The cave-man who wasn’t there likely lost his mating rights, was tapped as the guy to stick the first spear into the mammoth and got the really burned parts of the meat to eat. In other words, a culturally intact replica of today’s office environment.


Check out any major law firm and you’ll see the lights on late into the night with one or two guys working their butts off and twenty others afraid to go home at five, no matter that their work is done. So, they soon learn to not get done at five . . . to stretch it out and fiddle with the work until they too can go home (complaining) at eleven.  Many large firms (legal and otherwise) are run by a genuine workaholic at the top of the food chain that keeps virtually everyone dithering around their desk, frantically getting nothing done until it’s corporately acceptable to go home.


Children grow up not knowing their fathers, mothers (and fathers) tinker around with having affairs, the truly lonely argue and bicker with the untruly busy and everyone drinks too much . . . all because of the terror of not being seen around the communal campfire and the communal campfire has moved from the home to the office.


Our inability to get it done (whatever it may be) in an eight-hour day is merely another example of the bargain we’ve made with our business associates to waste time. Decision-making isn't allowed to happen because of the labyrinthine approval processes designed to keep us in the game with the lights on. Making the fucking decision would send us all home to wife and family, lover and theatre, husband and kids in thirty-five hours with an empty out-box and all the pencils neatly aligned.


But then it would look easy. Then the people in who’s awe we hope to be held would know that our jobs were relatively simple and that the major responsibility of those jobs was to get out of the way of the process and let the bolts be machined, the contracts negotiated, the container ships loaded and the meetings adjourned.


You heard it here first---the next new wave of business acumen to hit the best-seller lists will be variously titled “Getting Out of the Way and Letting _________ Happen.”  Larry Summers guys aren't likely to write it, but they might benefit.  Nah, they all like it that way.