James Lardner
James Lardner

Fellowship Title:

When the Crunch Becomes the Norm: Cries from Inside the 24-Hour Work Clock

James Lardner
December 19, 2001

Fellowship Year

According to no end of authorities extrapolating forward from the trends of the early 20th century, Americans should be wallowing in free time by now. A four-hour workday, the technocrat Harold Loeb wrote in 1933, would “satisfy fully the material needs of each member of the community at a minimum expense of human effortand lift that preoccupation with economic security which has always weighted the soul of man except on a few tropical islands.”1

On the island of Manhattan, I can report, work life has veered off in a different direction. (New York City is a special case, of course, but readers in other regions of the nation may recognize the broad patterns of behavior described here.) I offer in evidence, for starters, my friend Jackie and her colleagues in the publications and presentations unit of Cavalier & Rathbone.

When Jackie went to work there as a graphic artist, a decade ago, the 40-hour work week still existed, at least as a Platonic ideal. Things could get fairly hectic when a big proposal was due, but Wanda, the office manager, saw to it that everyone got some rest afterwards, and she ran interference for her people when the demands of the muckamucks got excessive. Then along came Lynette, the new marketing director, who was young and svelte and dedicated to the proposition that every document had to be “dazzling.”

Lynette wanted more, and she wanted it quicker. Under her aegis, proposals began to resemble expensive coffee-table books, with four-color covers, vellum flyleafs, and layouts as sophisticated as the latest computer-graphics equipment, which Cavalier & Rathbone had aplenty. She also had a habit of turning up at five or five-thirty in the afternoon, fresh from a meeting with a partner, to talk over a cover design that she expected to see on her desk first thing in the morning. With jobs coming in closer and closer to deadline, the desktop publishers and graphic artists found themselves working round the clock for days at a stretch. Wanda would arrive in the morning to discover people asleep at their desks in the clothes they had been wearing the night before – “fried,” as she put it. The crunch, in short, had become the norm.

Early in their relationship, Wanda tried talking to Lynette, woman to woman. Lynette was new, she reasoned, and needed educating. She needed to understand, for example, that time-and-a-half was not, in the long run, a cure for exhaustion. Even a company-paid hotel room – an increasingly regular perk of employment in the publications and presentations unit – might not seem so wonderful, Wanda sought to explain, to a worker who got to spend a few ragged hours there at best. Some people, after all, had beds of their own, and families whom they looked forward to seeing from time to time.

But Lynette swept these arguments aside with a barrage of talk about “quality” and “customer service.” Recently and tempestuously divorced – and childless – she did not make much of a distinction in her own life between day and night or week and weekend, and she had a limited capacity, Wanda decided, to understand anyone who did.

Giving up on persuasion as a strategy, Wanda took a more practical tack. She put together an official-looking schedule specifying when the rough copy, the cover design, the final copy, and the other elements of a proposal had to be submitted. Intended to ensure an orderly work flow, Wanda’s schedule would have been the perfect solution – if Lynette had paid any attention to it.

Wanda’s next step was to go to her boss, Al, the director of administration. Since Al was (in the words of another subordinate) “a numbers guy – not a real humanitarian,” Wanda emphasized the extra money that was being spent in the effort to meet Lynette’s requirements. On one recent job, she pointed out, they had missed a Fed Ex deadline, making it necessary to send an employee to London as a courier. What with various attention-getting packaging schemes, she told Al, the office was spending unprecedented sums on outside work: twenty thousand dollars, for example, for a Bayer proposal that had been boxed inside a giant aspirin tablet.

But if Al felt any concern about the cost in money or human wear and tear, Wanda was unable to detect it. In the scheme of things, publications and presentations was one of the “service departments,” and, as such, it had to serve. “Do what she says,” Al told Wanda, adding, “I don’t want her complaining to Mort.”

Mort was the managing partner of the New York office. It was he who had hired Lynette, and he occupied a large place, Wanda knew, in Al’s thoughts, for Al had often warned her at the outset of a meeting to be prepared for what he called a “Code Red” – a phone call from Mort. In the event of a code red, a lower-level visitor to Al’s office had to evacuate immediately.

To Wanda’s dismay, her meeting with Al developed into a forum for the venting of Lynette’s grievances rather than her own. Some of the graphic artists, Al quoted Lynette as saying, were recycling old designs instead of coming up with new ones. Some, he had it on the same authority, were taking overlong bathroom breaks. On several occasions, Al had noted Wanda’s own absence from the office as early as five-thirty – not a suitable departure hour, he told her, for someone earning $70,000 a year.

Al took the opportunity to share with Wanda a maxim that he said he had found useful over the years: “Don’t make plans in the evening that you aren’t prepared to break.” In a similar spirit, he reminded her, “There’s always someone waiting to take your job.”

Wanda wrote Al off as a “coward,” and proceeded to treat him with ill-concealed scorn. At a company function one night, a group of Cavalier & Rathbone people got to talking about the odd parts of the human anatomy on which younger Americans had taken to posting jewelry. Al, who had downed a few drinks, chimed in with a story about an indentation he had recently noticed on his wife’s navel, and the ensuing discovery that she had had it pierced, a few weeks earlier, in anticipation of summertime and the beach. There were half a dozen employees at Al’s table, but only Wanda found it necessary to wonder aloud why Al had been so slow to notice his wife’s surgery.

As much as Jackie liked and admired Wanda, she worried that they would pay a price, sooner or later, for her lack of diplomacy. And yet it was Jackie’s recklessness as much as Wanda’s that brought about the eventual carnage.

It had to do with a proposal for Time-Warner. Lynette had decided to cast the proposal in the image of a Time-Warner annual report, ignoring several conventions of design at Cavalier & Rathbone. One of the things she intended to do without was the so-called “master logo,” which featured an old etching of the founding partners. Mort had OK’d the decision, according to Lynette, and she matter-of-factly implied that a high-ranking partner in Cleveland – the birthplace and still the official world headquarters of the company – had signed off on it, too.

Jackie, as it happened, knew the partner in Cleveland, for she had served with him on a task force charged with implementing the design standards. Remembering him as an ardent champion of the standards, she couldn’t believe he would let them be defied in this way. Why not telephone Cleveland, she suggested to Wanda, and seek “clarification”? With Wanda’s approval, she placed the call herself.

Looking back, Jackie had to question her motives. The logo was something of an eyesore, and, left to her own devices, she, too, might have chosen to omit it. And yet, in the face of Lynette’s breezy indifference, she had become enraged. Why? Perhaps, she speculated later, her feelings for the logo had become entangled with her feelings for Lynette, for she could recall more than one occasion when, after submitting a number of last-minute revisions, Lynette had complained to Al about the office’s failure to get something done on schedule. Like Wanda, Jackie disliked Lynette thoroughly, and the prospect of catching her in a lie was irresistible.

With her “missile to Cleveland,” as Al later characterized it, she caught Lynette in a lie. What’s more, she tapped an unexpectedly deep well of resentment toward the New York office and (as Cleveland perceived it) its go-it-alone ways. At something close to the speed of light, the logo dispute flashed around the world, reaching, among others, the high-ranking partner, who was in Tokyo at the time. He shot back an e-mail message to Lynette sternly reminding her that the master logo had been the product of lengthy deliberations over the need for uniformity in all Cavalier & Rathbone literature. He found it incredible, and so on, that two responsible officers of the company – Lynette and Mort – would attempt to undermine such an important policy directive.

In the wake of his reprimand, Lynette decreed that the Time-Warner proposal would, after all, carry the master logo. No sooner had the proposal gone out, however, than Wanda was summoned to Al’s office.

“This is kind of difficult,” he began. Not so difficult, however, as to keep him from quickly getting to the point: her job had been eliminated. And since the company believed in doing these things expeditiously, it had been eliminated as of that very afternoon; indeed, their farewell conversation itself lasted only about twenty minutes, although Al found time to specify the number of cartons that Wanda would be allowed to bring out of the building when she came for her personal papers and knick-knacks over the weekend.

Wanda had been a good mother to the staff, remembering birthdays, thanking people for acts above and beyond, and organizing office parties, picnics, and more than one barbecue at her place in the country. So her subordinates tended to get fairly emotional over her dismissal.

They also got their resumes polished. But, to their general relief, nobody else was fired, and blame for the call to Cleveland seemed to remain squarely on the shoulders of the departed Wanda. Jackie, who half-expected the ax, received a promotion instead. She was named office coordinator, under Al’s deputy, Janice, who was to oversee the unit in addition to her other duties.

Jackie embarked on the new job with divided emotions. On the one hand, she had been close to Wanda. On the other hand, Wanda, in her opinion, had lost touch with reality. Wanda was something of a closet Luddite: although she worked in a hive of computers, she remained unconvinced that, in the final analysis, they had made the world a better place. She had even been heard to question the wisdom of investing so much money and artistic energy into documents that, she suspected, not very many people bothered to read.

Wanda was a great believer, for herself, in the sanctity of a “normal dinner,” and of weekends in the country with her husband. Jackie, by contrast, thought that creative people had to be ready to work nights and weekends. Just as Al had said, it seemed to her that a manager’s place was with her subordinates, helping them organize their time and deal with partners who would inevitably raise questions that the artists couldn’t or shouldn’t be required to decide on their own. Jackie had done her share of all-nighters, and she rather enjoyed the camaraderie and the sense of mission.

But her schedule turned out to be a lot more exacting than she anticipated. Nights and weekends in the office became almost routine. The staff would pull off some remarkable feat of technological sophistication – and be asked to repeat it job after job. “People would see a finished proposal,” she recalled, “and instead of coming down and thanking us for all the time and effort, they’d get this glint in their eye: ‘Oh, here’s another amazing thing that can be done!'”

Beyond the sheer number of hours that she was spending at work, home had become a far less private zone of life now that she had been promoted. Time with her husband and their two sons was routinely invaded by phone calls from the office. Even when the calls ceased, Jackie found it impossible to cleanse her mind of the job and the tension that flowed from it.

Janice, to her relief, handled most of the dealings with Lynette; unfortunately, Janice herself proved to be cut from similar cloth. She, too, was chronically dissatisfied. She, too, was in the office at all hours, and expected the support staff to be there whenever she was. In the past, holidays had meant three-day weekends for everybody; now, by edict from Janice, the people who worked Saturdays, on a rotating basis, were told to take their extra day in the middle of the week. Jackie herself was given a list of what she considered “bizarre and anal” instructions for the delivery of a proposal: a job would be finished at, say, three in the morning, and she would have to stick around another half-hour or more putting copies on the thresholds of various partners’ offices, and leaving voice-mails for them to alert them to that fact.

Jackie had always struck people as affable and accommodating – a company woman. Now a new and sardonic tone crept into her remarks about Cavalier & Rathbone. Her older son was having trouble with his homework. Her job needed her day and night. The job prevailed.

A year – a bad year – passed before Jackie was summoned to her own parting rendezvous with Al. This time, he had invited a third person to be present: a polite, well-dressed stranger who proved to be her outplacement consultant. Jackie was now the sole support of her family, her husband having worked only fitfully since losing a teaching job two years earlier. The outplacement consulted had been brought in, she theorized later, lest she take the news hard, perhaps even becoming a danger to herself or others.

This, however, was just a guess, for Al didn’t actually mention her family. Nor the possibility of financial trouble. Nor, for that matter, the possibility of employment elsewhere in a firm with more than twenty-five thousand employees across the continental United States. These final dealings with Al gave Jackie a new perspective on Cavalier & Rathbone. It “certainly isn’t a community,” she commented.

Being fired was a confusing experience. As she put it later, “Half of me wants to kick up my heels and the other half is saying, ‘Ohmigod, I don’t have a job!'” On her way home, she prepared a little speech for her husband. But words proved unnecessary. One look – and he guessed. Jackie then unveiled a bottle of champagne that she had purchased en route, and they cracked it open, to celebrate the fact that the only person in the family with a job no longer had one.

Ross Perot, putting his stethoscope to the economy a couple of presidential elections ago, heard a “great sucking sound” of jobs flying south of the border. In the trendier parts of the white-collar world these days, you can hear another “great sucking sound”: bright, well-disciplined young men and women – raised with all the advantages – flying into round-the-clock work. The press has glommed onto a few who have ejected from the fast life, seeking simplicity and balance, but they are far out-numbered by those who, like my next-door neighbor Tom, harbor no thought of escaping.

Tom is an investment banker, happily married, with a beguiling two-year-old daughter. He comes home at 8 p.m. or so on good nights, and at 11 or later on bad nights; that’s leaving aside the “bakeoffs” and “road shows” that have taken him, in recent months, to San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, and Edinborough, among other spots. And Tom says he “used to” work long hours.

He’s talking about several years ago, when he frequently overnighted at the office – a rarity now. He also draws a favorable contrast between his situation and that of his brother-in-law, a portfolio manager specializing in metals, who has two small children and routinely gets home from work around midnight. Tom counts himself lucky, too, not to be a lawyer.

My friend Caroline, who is one, would not quarrel with him. Three years ago, at a calculated financial sacrifice in the tens of thousands of dollars annually, she chose to go to work for a firm that prided itself on its civil-rights and pro bono work. She soon found herself laboring on behalf of much the same sort of commercial interests as her less high-minded peers – for about half the pay. To the displeasure of her husband, Caroline frequently came home at seven in the morning, to crash for a few hours and go back to the office. The way she analyzed the situation, she was doing all this work largely in order to fatten the coffers of partners who, notwithstanding their professions of social responsibility, made ten times as much money as she did. (In a recent issue of The City Journal, a young ex-associate remarked on a similar tendency at another New York law firm: “The ex-hippies were the worst people to work for. If you went into a forty-something’s office and saw a picture of him with hair down to his shoulders, you were in trouble.”) 2

Caroline recently jumped ship for a firm with fewer pretensions. “I may as well just get paid more to be a frazzled lawyer, if that’s what I’m going to be,” she explains.

Gerry, another lawyer-friend of mine, left private practice a few years ago, with the idea of unfrazzling. Gerry, who is ten years older than Caroline, has wistful memories of a day when adversaries in a lawsuit cooperated to “keep costs and blood pressures down.” Nowadays, he says, they cooperate to make life hell for each other. Let’s say you’re writing a motion, and your adversaries will have ten days to reply; you deliberately file it on a Friday, according to Gerry, so as to compel the other side to work two straight weekends. “It’s just the way the game is played,” he says.

The law, however, has a formidable rival for the honor of most grueling high-paid profession in the land: management consulting. A few years ago, Carla, who has a daughter in pre-school with my son, was commuting to a client on Long Island – a cushy assignment, if she had not been in an advanced state of pregnancy. To avoid the risk of being at the wheel of an automobile when she went into labor, she decided to go by train. But the journey was complicated, and she was coming home at nine or ten every night. Finally, she got up the nerve to tell a partner that she needed some relief. What she was after, she said, was a job that would get her home by six or so.

“I have a great idea,” he replied. “We’ll get a cell phone for you.” Since Carla didn’t immediately grasp the value of a cel phone to a woman in her predicament, he spelled it out: “No matter what time you leave, you can always get in touch with an ambulance.”

Society has not lavished much sympathy on people like Carla, Tom, and Jackie – and understandably not, considering all the people who, besides working longer than they would like, are paid a pittance for it. Still, we’re talking about a great many Americans, and about a privileged and influential elite – “history’s first mass upper class,” the conservative polemicist David Frum has aptly labeled them. And while they have, in a sense, chosen the lives they lead, the choice is not always as free as it may appear. You might, for example, imagine that if it’s possible for someone to make $150,000 working seventy hours a week, she could make $75,000 working thirty-five hours a week. But such adjustments can be confoundingly difficult to arrange. Carla took a leave of absence after the birth of her daughter. A year later, she broached the possibility of a part-time job with her old firm, and a sympathetic partner told her that he had the ideal assignment: it would be three or four days of work a week, he said – in California. For Carla, and for many others (men as well as women), there has proved to be very little middle ground in these matters.

We are seeing the rise of a new economic class, and, it sometimes seems, the dawn of a new species. If some of these people were put on an autopsy table (assuming a few minor further strides forward in the coroner’s art), we would see work and money occupying an astonishing proportion of their brains. And yet, no one is making these people feel abnormal; it is, on the contrary, they who are making others feel that way. A demonic commitment to work has become all but obligatory in banking, law, medicine, computer hardware and software, the media, and most of the other branches of the information economy. In a recent ad for Windows, the Microsoft corporation defines the caring employee as one who “walks through the door in the morning and back out in the evening (sometimes very late in the evening). Someone who will rewrite paragraphs in the shower. Someone who will work through lunch to make something just right”

In their work habits, these people emulate the great capitalists who helped get the industrial and information ages going. Indeed, an increasing number of industries and professions have organized themselves to turn more people into de facto, if not official, equity-holders, and to keep close tabs on their contributions to the profit picture – contributions that, in many cases, were until recently buried under a fog of obscurity. Through continual, computerized feedback, and the proper deployment of the carrot and the stick, corporate America has, in effect, turned large numbers of employees into entrepreneurs. (This is what the great management revolution of the 1980s and 90s largely boils down to.)

Jackie’s vantage point as an unemployed woman has given her a new outlook on the year she spent as coordinator of the publications and presentations unit. Cavalier & Rathbone, she says, “got the best hours of my day.” Weekends, if she was lucky enough to have one off, became recuperation periods. Whether in the office or at home, she was constantly thinking about the job. At times, she would be physically with her family, but mentally at the office. “I thought I was paying attention to them, but I wasn’t,” she said, “I had no idea how bad it was.”

Being fired, in Jackie’s telling, was like coming back from a near-death experience. Most people, of course, don’t come back, and many don’t complain, for what another civilization might regard as a deranged attitude to work ranks as a big part of what has come to be known, reverently, as “merit.” That’s why the names and companies (and a few identifying details) in this piece have been changed. If Tom, for example, were recognizable – and if anyone in his firm imagined that he craved more time away from the job – they would size him up, he says, as “a weenie.”

Jackie has been spending great expanses of time lately with her children, overseeing homework, going to the movies, and walking to and from school, among other things. She goes on school trips and attends PTA meetings. She had lunch with her husband recently. Not a bad life, to hear her tell it. Unfortunately, she needs a job.


  1. Life in a Technocracy: The Future Imagined.
  2. Jonathan Foreman, “My Life as an Associate,” City Journal, Winter 1977.

©1997 James Lardner

James Lardner, a freelance writer in New York City, is studying work life in the Nineties.

James Lardner
James Lardner