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What are we talking about?
Productivity, specifically why we need to rebuild our understanding of what expectations employers have over people’s time.
Why is getting a new understanding of time important to the future of work?
Most companies view the ideal worker as one with no caregiving responsibilities. But if we are going to get to anything like gender parity, we have to make it easier for both men and women to be great workers without relying on being at the office all the time.
Getting our perspective on time and work right is one of the central pieces to building a better future of work.
What Brigid Schulte taught us about how to look at time
It’s not just for purely self-interested reasons that Americans have chosen higher salaries instead of more leisure time. Because we have to pick up the tab for social services like health care and child care, we often need to get more money.
Gender pay disparity is often linked to marriage. Men tend to marry women who are younger than they are and earlier in their career. If they decide to have a child, the man usually has a higher salary at the time, and it is much more likely that the woman will stop working. Men are also expected to be continually more available at the office during these years, which puts more pressure on the family.
One huge problem is that we are still stuck with seeing money for time as the only primary metric. If we could shift more towards money for productivity or responsibility, then time pressure could be lessened.
The government is not going to fix these problems; business needs to lead the way.
Some people complain that Millennials and Gen Z are acting entitled by demanding more flexible work timings. However, all generations across the board want this. It’s not entitlement, but a demand that we improve our workplaces.
Learn more about Brigid Schulte
Today, our guest is Brigid Schulte. She’s a journalist and author of the book “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” This episode is called Work Minus the Ideal Worker. Hi, Brigid. How are you?
I’m great. How are you doing?
Doing very well. I was driven to your book because it’s a fun topic for us. We love talking about time, productivity, workplace, and different things. But I have to say I was really compelled by the topic but your writing style on the book was amazing how you start off and really pull us into this feeling that so many of us have that we’re feeling pulled in so many different directions with our time. And I love what you wrote for that. So thanks for the book.
Thank you. I have to say it was really hard to write that way. I’m trained as a journalist. And I worked at the Washington Post for many years and writing in the first person was just never something that you did or never something you’re trained to do. So, I had a really hard time writing that and I started writing a magazine story, and honest to God, the day that it came out, I was curled up in the fetal position. “I should never done that. People are going to just, like, shared my dirty laundry with the world. People are going to know,” right? And I basically blew it all. And it was so funny. My husband looked at me curled up. I didn’t want to get out of bed. He just goes, “Too late now.”
It’s out there. It’s so vulnerable that I feel like I was writing it, like the way you wrote it. Just it came out so nicely. So, tell us about how you got so interested in time. How did this become a passion for you?
Well, how did I get interested in time? And most people who’ve known me most of my life would laugh at that because I was always the little kid running out the door late and shoe in hand and the toothbrush in my mouth to get to school. So, I’ve always had a challenge with time. I really work hard at being punctual. I’m not very punctual. So, I’ve always struggled with time. And then where the idea for the book came from, I never really set out to write this book and actually fought against it for the longest time. And it all really started, I was part of this group at the Washington Post at the time, and we were looking at our readership numbers, and seeing that things were really starting to change and what they even called it the “frenetic family demographic,” people with young kids or people with increasingly needing to care for aging parents or relatives, people who were like most people, you’re trying to work and you’ve got a whole lot of caregiving responsibilities, and seeing this huge drop in readership numbers, particularly among women.
And so, the powers that be were really worried like, why are we losing women readers? And what can we do about it? So, I got appointed to this women readers committee, and we were supposed to figure out why were women not reading the newspaper and what could we do to have them read the newspaper. And so, being reporters, we wanted to find some data. What does the data show? Why wouldn’t women read the newspaper? And all of us looked around and rolled our eyes. It’s like, well, they’re really busy. That’s why. Because we weren’t even reading the newspaper in the morning and we worked for the newspaper. Because mornings, if you’ve got caregiving responsibilities, are crazy. You’ve got kids running every which way, maybe your mom’s calling, she’s got a doctor’s appointment. You’re lucky to get out the door. I can’t tell you how many times I go out with baby barf on my shoulder or a Snow White sticker that I didn’t realize is on and go for big interview. I actually did that, and the DA in Baltimore had to take the Snow White sticker off afterwards. You’re always feeling like you’re just running late and behind. And I was feeling just totally inadequate all the time, never doing as much work as I could or should or whatever or expected to. But also not being the calm and present parent. I just felt like I was in this constant tornado of no time.
And so, in the middle of this women readers group, we said, “Well, let’s get the data to show how busy women are.” And so, not knowing anything, I’m like, “I don’t know, I’ll look for it.” And I just googled busy, women, time, mothers. And then I found this whole group of researchers that I’ve since become really read a lot of their work, but I didn’t know anything about it. There are sociologists, economists, and psychologists who study how we spend our time. There’s a whole International Association of Time Use Researchers. They actually research time. And we’ve got in the United States the American Time Use Survey that the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out every year. And so, there’s all this wonderful data that really helps you give you this bigger picture of how people spend their time. So, I called this one researcher up who is a pioneer in the field. He’s known as father time. And I’m like, “We’re writing this report about how women aren’t reading the newspaper. We figured they’re busy.” And he just goes, “You’re wrong. Women aren’t busy. They have 30 hours of leisure a week, and men, they’ve got 40 hours of leisure.” He basically was saying everybody’s just a whiny idiot, and people had all this free time and they just felt busy. And I’m like, “You are out of your mind. I don’t have 30 hours of leisure.” And so, he said, “Yes, you do. Do this time study with me and I will show you where your leisure is.”
And honest to God, that is how this whole project started is I basically was challenged to do a study, because this guy wanted to show me that I had leisure time. And so, that led to me tracking my time, which was really difficult and really regulatory. But also I ended up writing a magazine story for The Washington Post magazine, being curled up in the fetal position, not wanting to share my dirty laundry with everybody. And then that ultimately led to writing a book. And the one thing when it came to thinking about the book, I did, I fought it for about a year after the magazine piece came out, because I just thought there’s nothing more to say. It’s busy, and it sucks, and I don’t think it can change. And yet, people kept coming back. It’s like, “We need you to write this book. You’ve got to write this book.” And so, then I thought I will only write this book if I can really understand deeply why. Why is it like this? How did it get like this? And more importantly, what can we do about it? Or is there anything to do about it? Should we go all just give up and just, I don’t know, be busy until we end up in the grave? I really wanted to use my skills as a reporter to really see if I could look for real world examples and really understand systems and structures that have led us here.
And so, I wrote the book, and I’ve got to tell you, it really changed my life. It led me directly to what I’m doing now. I left the Post. I’m now a program director at New America. I direct something called the Better Life Lab. And that is exactly what we spend our time doing, trying to figure out how do you change work? How do you change the way we look at gender and gender equality? How do you change public policy? How do you change workplace and corporate practice to really make life better? Because the thing that I learned in working on that book is that it can be better, that it doesn’t have to be crazy and busy. And that there are a series of choices that we make as individuals, as communities, and as businesses, and as a culture. And we could make different choices.
So, let’s get into some of this book. Obviously, you’ve touched on so many different topics. And we want to look at the big picture, the systems that are around us, how we got into this mess of being busy. Because when we think about progressing into the future, we think about things should be getting better. Most of us maybe are making more money than we did maybe 10, 20 years ago. But do we have more free time? Do we have more leisure? These are things that economists long ago were saying we’ll have so much free time in the future that we’ll have to figure out what to do with all of it. But that part hasn’t turned for us. We haven’t really gained more of that. What’s your feeling based on your research as to why we’ve always chosen to go after more wealth and money versus more leisure and free time?
It is such a good question. And really you have to look at, just like you had said, there was a time in the mid 20th century when all the economists were saying we’re going to have this coming age of leisure. We’re going to be so productive. We’re going to have our basic needs met. We’ll be able to do our work in a couple hours a week. We’ll be able to retire at 38. We’ll have all of this free time. What happened? So, a couple things happened. If you start looking at what happened with wages, you say that Americans tend to choose money over time. Yes and no. So, you start looking at wages, you say some of us are making more than we did 10 years ago. That’s not true. It’s not true of a lot of us. And this is the first generation that’s not going to be doing better than their parents. If you look at larger trends, productivity since the end of the Second World War has continued to increase on this pretty steep slope. But you look at what happened to wages. After the Second World War, for about two decades, wages and productivity rose in parallel. And then things started to change in the 1970s. You had much more of a financialization of the economy. We started to value shareholder returns rather than investing in people and communities. And the whole point of corporations and businesses began to change. You had more globalization you had jobs that went overseas.
So, starting in the 70s, wages have really stagnated since then, even as productivity continues to decline. When people feel, “I’m working so hard, but I’m not making it,” there’s a real reason for that. We’ve made choices as an economy, again, to prioritize shareholder value rather than worker wages or well being. So, that’s one thing. And the second thing I’ll say is we are unlike a number of other advanced economies that have a different social welfare system. There are countries where you pay into taxes, but then you get healthcare, then you get college education, you get a number of social welfare benefits. So, the important thing to remember is that we do not have those policies here. We don’t have paid vacation policy. We don’t have paid sick days policy. We don’t have paid family and medical leave policy. We don’t have universal healthcare. We’ve made choices over the years to leave them to individuals to pay for. So, we don’t have the ability to pool our resources so that everybody gets well being and the social welfare benefits.
So, in a sense, Americans have to prioritize money because they have to pay for more stuff. And there’s been really interesting studies that show, I think that in some circles and political circles, they’ll say, “Oh, those European countries, their taxes are so high and that’s socialism. And that’s not the American way.” And yet, the studies show that people in the United States pay about the same amount of money that the Swedes do for social welfare benefits. The difference is that the Swedes pool their resources, they pay it in taxes so that everybody gets these resources and the difference is Americans pay individually out of pocket, which leads to some real inequities in terms of who gets access to well being. So, to understand why Americans don’t have and don’t value leisure, you really have to understand some of those larger economic underpinnings that in some ways we’ve set up our system in a way that makes it very difficult for Americans to prioritize time and leisure.
Yeah, that’s a very important point to bring in. And it’s not just we’re all individually making these decisions that we are greedy and we want more money, but mostly we have to because of all this. So, one of the themes in your book, you talk about the ideal worker. So, tell us what you mean by the ideal worker and what corporations mean or companies when they say we want the ideal worker in this situation? And why can they not find that person anymore?
This is so important. And I think this is something that is so much more powerful than people realize. And I think it’s something so important for corporations and workplaces to have awareness about. But there’s a lot of really interesting social science research about who do we value as workers, and who do we reward, who do we promote? Who do we want to go for a beer with? Who do we see has potential? And there’s really good research that shows we tend to think that the best worker or the ideal worker, the one that we want to lead us, the one that we want to promote, the one that we’re going to give the raise to, the promotion to, is somebody who has literally no caregiving responsibilities, is somebody who is work-devoted or some people call it work first. Somebody who will come in early and stay late and be a presence in the office and answer emails at all hours and really have no life. So, when you think about that, there was a survey. It was managers and CEOs around the world and asked who’s the ideal worker and more than three fourths said somebody with no caregiving responsibilities. Well, so, what does that do immediately? That puts pretty much every woman off the table, and that you can’t possibly compete as an ideal worker.
And then there’s other I think very troubling but interesting social science research that shows that even if you don’t have caregiving responsibilities as a woman, there is an expectation that you should and so that if you try to work as an ideal worker that you somehow get punished for it. You don’t get the same benefits as if a man did it. And the flip side, if you are a man, and you don’t work like an ideal worker, or this work-devoted worker and you want to do the childcare pickup or you want to be more involved with your aging parent or you want a live outside of work, that you actually are more punished for that. The expectation is if you’re a man, that you should be this ideal worker. If you’re a woman, we’ll tolerate you, but you can’t be an ideal worker. And it’s still a very powerful social norm that I think really drives a lot of unconscious bias, a lot of assumptions. And I think that’s really something people need to become more aware of and begin to figure out how to address.
So, if we’re talking to business leaders who can recognize that, yeah, I have that bias, when I hire somebody, I’m hiring for a job, but I hope that I get more out of them than I put into it, that they are going to be available for those times. What’s a good way for those people to bounce that bias out and to recognize when it’s there?
So, it’s really important. Everybody wants somebody who’s going to be dedicated and committed and excited, we use words like give 110% and go above and beyond. And I guess what I would say is, there are ways that you can do that. There are ways that you could be excellent at what you do when you focus on what is the mission of a job. And unfortunately, what the research shows is that we haven’t figured out how to measure knowledge work. We don’t have good metrics for when it’s good, when it’s enough, when it’s done. And so, we fall back on these older metrics that we used to use in a more industrial or factory age. We use presence. “Oh, you’re here. You must be doing a good job. Oh, you’re here late, you must be doing an even better job.” So, we equate face time and long hours with an ideal worker, when in a knowledge environment, those two factors really are meaningless. And so, what I would say to managers, to CEOs, to workers, is you got to get clear on what is your mission, what is the point of the work, and focus on that and what makes it excellent and how much is enough and when are your deadlines, focus on the performance and the output metrics, not so much on the input metrics, and then you’ll have much more opening for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Let’s talk about diverse ways that people experience time. So, you mentioned obviously men and women have a very different way that they experience time. So, tell us more about that. And then also, let’s get into ideas about races, classes, generations, how do different people experience time in a different way that maybe we’re not aware of?
Well, it’s interesting. So, there has been research, a lot of really interesting research on gender differences in time. And again, this goes back to why it’s so important to understand notions like the ideal worker, or notions like the ideal mother, that these are these cultural icons that are still very powerful and can drive the way that we think, which then drives our attitudes and assumptions and even behaviors about other people. So, it’s interesting. The example is that you have a family and you’re sitting around the dinner table and they’re eating dinner. Well, so the mom could be sitting there and feeling horrible. She can be feeling guilty. It’s like, “Oh, my god. I was at work all day. I got home later than I wanted. I didn’t go to the Honor Society thing. I’m feeling like a failure.” Because the ideal mother notion is making me feel the expectation is that I should be fully available and I should be family first and put my family first. So, the man, the dad can be sitting there and feeling awesome. Because, “Oh, my god. I’m here. And I haven’t been home for dinner in days. And aren’t I amazing because I made it home for dinner?” Because in his worldview, if you’re supposed to be the ideal worker and the breadwinner, you’re supposed to put work first so that if you come home and you’re there in a family setting, well then that time feels very different. You feel like you’ve succeeded or it’s a win whereas for a for a mother, with those kinds of cultural drivers, you can feel like a failure.
So, it’s fascinating and important to understand how our notions of what’s “right” and what the “right” roles are can really influence our experience of time. And then you talk about races and classes and generations. And I think generationally what’s so interesting is there’s again, a lot of evidence that we talk about millennials and Gen Z, and they want more work life balance. And you know what? It’s true. But the surveys show that so did baby boomers and so did Gen X. I mean, think about it. Everybody wants to live a good life. You want to do meaningful work. You want to have time for love and connection with your family. You want to have time for leisure. The difference is baby boomers didn’t feel like they could get it. Gen Xers thought, “Well, baby boomers can’t get it. I can’t get it.” So, they kind of like slog through. And millennials and Gen Z are saying, “Forget it. I’m not going to do the same thing that you did.” So, they not only have the same belief that work life balance is the right way to go. But they have a very different sense of entitlement, which I think is positive, that they’re owed it or that that’s the way you should live a good life. So, their behavior is beginning to be different. And so, companies are beginning to look at that. And where this is important, and what companies need to begin to break that link between long hours and ideal workers and good work, is that there’s great research that shows that long hours, actually, the longer you work, the less productive you are. The longer you work, the less likely you are to have an innovative or creative idea, that there’s neuroscience that shows that you get your best ideas when you’re well rested. You’re in a positive mood, and you’re kind of in a spacey daydreaming mode. So, businesses need to begin to recognize that the ideal worker is on a path to burnout and is not going to get you productivity and is never going to get you the innovation or creativity that we’re going to need in this fast changing world.
We’ve talked to other guests, talked about 4-day work weeks, we’ve talked about shortening work hours, different things. Do you feel like businesses can lead the way in some of these conversations? Is that the right conversation to have?
Well, businesses are the only ones that can lead the way. Changing the way we work is not something that can come from government, nor should. Every business is different. And that’s what’s beautiful about a dynamic capitalist system. You’ve got the freedom to figure out what works for you. You’ve got an awful lot of room to be dynamic and creative, to set your values and then experiment within there. For some companies, absolutely a 4-day work week could work. Other companies can try other different models. But you have to think what’s your North Star? Where is it that you’re going and what are the values that you’re putting in? And I would really argue that everyone needs to be putting in worker well being into their equations because then that influences the kind of communities that we have, that influences our country and our culture in an economy in much bigger ways. A lot of times companies are thinking shareholder value, and then they look at their labor budgets. And I’m thinking, particularly for people who hire hourly or low wage workers. And that’s gotten us into this horrendous situation where so many hourly workers either are not getting enough money. They’re not paid enough to be able to live well. They’re not given enough hours to be able to make ends meet. And companies need to realize that not only is that bad for workers and their workers’ families and the precarity and stress, both mental and psychological, that comes from trying to live that disorganized time that you have no control over. It’s actually bad for customers, and it’s bad for your business. And so, when you look at the bigger picture, into the future, where do you want to go? How do you want to survive, and not just survive, but thrive? Workers and worker well being are key to any of those equations.
Brigid, I love this conversation. You’ve touched on so many topics that are important and thinking about, one, how companies need to think about how they’re rewarding employees, get beyond, we need to drop those ideas about being paid just by time based on Industrial Revolution practices. We need to look at social systems in terms of even just gender differences, how men support women, and their own families, in workplaces. Those types of things are there. There’s a lot of things to think through. I think time is one of the essential elements that we need to get right if we’re going to really get to a better future of work. So, I really appreciate your work. I appreciate your book. I hope you continue to advocate for this and come out. Where can people go to stay in touch with you?
So, I do a lot of writing. You can subscribe to our newsletter. We have the Your Life, Better, the latest in work redesigned, the future of work, gender, and social policy. And you can go to our website at the Better Life Lab. We have a number of reports. We just came out with a major report looking at the experience of men and caregiving, and I will tell you right now, if you want to really change some of those outdated breadwinner, homemaker notions, you really want to move forward on productivity and gender equity, the most important thing we can do is support men taking paid caregiving leave because you’ll never have more equity at work until you have better equity at home and right now it’s incredibly inequitable at home. So, Better Life Lab website. I do have my own website, brigidschulte.com. I’m on Twitter. Although not as often because I’m actually trying to be heads down and write the next project.
All right. Well, that sounds exciting. Thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing what you know with us.
Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s great talking with you.
Brigid Schulte is the author of the New York Times bestselling book on time pressure, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One has the Time, which named one of the notable books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR, and won the Virginia Library Association’s literary nonfiction award.
She has spoken all over the world about time, productivity, the causes and consequences of our unsustainable, always-on culture, and how to make time for Work, Love and Play – The Good Life – by rethinking how we work so that it’s effective, sustainable and fair, by re-imagining gender roles for a fairer division of labor and opportunity at work and home, by rewiring social policy, and instead of seeking status in busyness, by recapturing the value of leisure. She was an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post and The Washington Post Magazine and part of the team that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. She now serves as the founding director of The Good Life Initiative at the nonpartisan think tank, New America, and director of The Better Life Lab, both of which seek to elevate the conversation, explore transformative solutions and highlight how work-life and gender equity issues are key to excellence, productivity and innovation, as well as a full, authentic and meaningful life for everyone. She has been quoted in numerous media outlets and has appeared on numerous TV and radio programs including NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America, BBC World News, and NPR’s Fresh Air, Morning Edition and On Point. In addition to the Post, her work has appeared in, among other places, the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Slate, Time, CNN, The Toronto Globe & Mail and Quartz. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, Tom Bowman, a reporter for National Public Radio, and their two children. She grew up in Portland, Oregon and spent her summers with family in Wyoming, where she did not feel overwhelmed.