When So-Called Work Ethic Replaces Productivity, American Families Suffer

It turns out that #grinding doesn't have that much to do with office productivity. It does, however, have a lot to do with unhappy, overworked families.

Richard A. Chance for Fatherly

Americans spend 390 more hours at work a year today than did 30 years ago. This is upsetting, but not all that surprising. While profits soared in the 90’s, CEOs and managers pressured employees to work longer and longer hours. The average worker, whose wages have not, on average, risen with the costs of inflation, responded in kind by working more for less, hoping that responding to manager’s concerns about visible work ethic might make their hard work pay off. So far, it hasn’t.

How did this happen? Jennifer Berdahl, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia who studies gender and power in the workplace and co-authored the study “Work as a Masculinity Contest” posits that work, despite strides in gender equality and family forward policies, are still sites of “masculinity contests,” where people are, whether due to virtue signaling from managers and coworkers or explicit instruction, pushed to work longer for less.

So, yes, while flexible office hours and unlimited vacation are becoming more normal with job postings offering the benefit up 178 percent from 2015 to 2019, work-ism and the #hustle culture are preached constantly on LinkedIn and by brands. (“Do What You Love,” reads the ill-fated WeWork’s t-shirts, motto, and overall branding, a company which soared in the United States until bombshell reports excoriated the company culture and top-down mismanagement.) It becomes a game of one-upmanship powered by fear of losing one’s job or an old school sense of machismo, that’s only won by overworking. And it’s hurting families.

The four dimensions of traditionally masculine workplaces, per Berdahl’s research, included putting work first, being dog-eat-dog, showing no weakness, and displaying work stamina. These qualities, per Berdahl, aren’t inherently male, but they are masculinized by our culture. After all, what is traditional masculinity associated with but showing no weakness, working hard, and providing for a family?

On its face, the results of these masculine qualities — long hours, impossible workloads, undermining coworkers and posturing efficiency — are seen as desirable to today’s managers, a sort of #hustleculture posturing that has been seen as far back as the 16th century in Europe. While people aren’t arguing that overwork is a cure for vice, the adoration and obsession with our ability to grind certainly comes from our Protestant background. Today, it looks like influencers like Tesla’s Elon Musk tweeting that “the world was never changed in a 40-hour workweek” and extolling the 80-hour workweek. It’s seen in the fact that LinkedIn tried to launch their own Snapchat to show off the #grind, and it’s seen in the managers who drink the kool-aid of the visible performance of long hours logged at the office — despite the fact that longer hours are not associated with more productivity.

But on its face, who doesn’t want an employee whose job is their number one priority, who is willing to be flexible and stay until 8 on a Wednesday night when asked and still get to work bright and early the next day?

These qualities do more than just satisfy a particular type of manager. They harm the careers of caretakers. The fact that masculine office culture persists even though family-friendly policies like paid family leave, lactation rooms, flexible work from home policies, compensation for IVF and adoption fees become commonplace in white collar workplaces, has to do with the people at the top enforcing the policies than the policies in place.

“A lot of companies might have great work-life balance policies, but people aren’t using them because of the stigma associated with doing so,” says Berdahl. Other research — conducted by Berdahl and others — suggests that a “flexibility stigma” still persists in the workplace. Employees reported being unwilling to take leave for their families for fear of being seen as not being committed to their work, and referred to these decisions as “choices” to move forward in the workplace – not untenable, unworkable situations themselves.

Instead, she says, men and women fear being “mommy-tracked” — a common term for a woman who “chooses” greater work-life balance over “career advancement” — and being dismissed as a serious worker because they had the audacity to start a family. But these days, it’s not just moms seeing the effects of having a child to pick up after school. “The stigma is getting shunted onto both genders, sadly,” says Berdahl. “You’re just basically seen as a wimp and uncommitted to work if you’re taking leave and putting family first.”

As a result, CEOs, managers and bosses, many of whom made it in the time when one salary could support a family, have the generational belief that to get ahead, employees today must do the same. The committed employee puts in 70 hours a week because that’s what it takes to get to the top. It’s hard to change the system when the people who benefited from its current structure are at the top of it: the average manager is more than 45 years old, (and if you’re a man, you make $20,000 more a year than your female manager counterpart) and the average CEO is 58.

It’s made worse when men stake their identity around their ability to work and provide for their families, especially because any employee’s relationship with work is coercive, if not forced, says Berdahl. It’s not as though someone can decide they’ve “had enough” of their workplace culture and can exit the rat race altogether. Jobs are essential for Americans to access health care and feed their families. And no rational employee would risk their job and career because their workplace culture is disadvantaging their ability to parent — especially in a precarious labor market. Today, the unemployment rate is about 3.2 percent — suggesting that jobs are far and few to come by and, should someone get laid off, another person would be able to take the job with ease. Tie that with the fact that wages are flattened and costs of living are rising, and the masculine structures that surround work are able to persist — and have implications wider than the workplace itself.

“The masculine structure of the workplace — having men there for as many hours as [bosses] wanted — depends on the olden days, when men had someone at home who was taking care of all their needs,” says Ann McGinley, co-director of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Workplace Law Program and author of Masculinity At Work: Employment Discrimination Through A Different Lens.

While this was always only true of those who had salaries that could support their family, that didn’t stop the norm from being the pre-eminent model of how we view employment.

“That guy at the accounting firm doesn’t have to take off work to go get his dry cleaning. Someone else is going to do it for him. He doesn’t have to pick up his kids at 3 o’clock from school. Someone’s doing that for him,” says McGinley. “And it’s happening on a regular basis without that person even worrying about it. It’s an incredible gift for that guy.” It’s also an incredible gift for that guy’s employer.

When workplaces are built around the notion that a man is never a caretaker and has unlimited time and effort and support in the world, as McGinley and Berdahl both argue, employers start to value the employee who can go what they think is the distance. Hence: long hours, impossible workloads, aggressive posturing. These qualities are precisely the type that undermine the ability of caretakers to move forward in their careers. In the past, that only meant women. But today? That means men, too.

“Definitions of fatherhood are changing,” says Berdahl. “And definitions of motherhood are changing more quickly in our social worlds than they are in our work worlds.” As a result, men are expected to do more housework and child care than previously — and they are doing more. Today, while women still do the vast majority of unpaid labor in the home, men have begun to pick up some of the slack, doing about 17 hours to women’s 28 of unpaid labor per week. Meanwhile, women are also far more likely to be working outside of the home: today, the majority of middle-class households are dual-income.

Despite all this, many men still stake their identity on their ability to provide. Liz Plank, journalist and author of For The Love Of Men: A New Vision of Mindful Masculinity, found that men who make less than their wives show physical signs of stress akin to having heart problems, obesity, and diabetes. Another study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that in marriages where women make more than men, the likelihood of divorce increases by 50 percent. That having a high-earner spouse gives men stress rather than relief says a lot about how they stake their identity around their work, and that the expectations that surround men are deeply unfair.

Even men who work for companies that provide work-life balance policies such as paid family leave don’t take it even when they do have it. McGinley, whose work is primarily focused in law firms around the world, found that in many countries with good leave policies, men don’t take it even when offered, because they fear career retribution. Even in countries like Spain, where parents can work 80 percent time until their children turn 8, in hyper-masculine competitive environments like law, dads still don’t do it, and the women that did said their careers were derailed. In Nordic countries, despite the fact that the country is widely heralded as one of the most gender-progressive countries in the world, men are still shy about taking their allotted leave because they don’t want to hurt their careers. So, moms, as always, get sidelined, and dads don’t get to spend time with their families. As a result, men pin their worth on something out of their control: the labor market. Who wins?

“Very few men at the top benefit. Most men lose. But everybody is still in the game, afraid of being outed as the wimp or the loser by challenging the norms,” says Berdahl. “Capitalism, and the men trusted with that capital is what wins.” Even those who do win, she says, do so at great cost to their own family lives.

McGinley recounts a story she heard from a fellow lawyer. “I was practicing law in Minneapolis, and one of the guys I worked with told me he had gone to New York, to one of the very very big law firms. [The lawyers] were all bragging about how they were the law firm with the highest divorce rate of all the lawyers. They thought that the idea of being that dedicated to your work was great.”

What is dedication? In the United States, the performance of dedication — facetime, pretending like you’re working constantly, and undermining office culture for individual gain by taking credit for other people’s ideas, per Berdahl’s study — is dedication. But it’s not conducive to organizational performance. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Japanese office moved to a four-day workweek and the company saw a 40 percent increase in productivity.

“I suppose you could say that making someone deliver packages for 12 hours a day gets more packages delivered than doing it for 8 hours a day,” says Berdahl. “But organizational norms aren’t being created because they are economically efficient. It’s more that they are emerging out of concerns about status, and what gets you ahead.”

In the meantime, parents will be stuck in the same systems, reinforcing the very norms that harm them. But what else are they to do? After all, they have a family to feed.