Nobel Prize-Winning Economist: The World of Long Work Hours Is Ripe for a Revolution

Belinda Howell
  • Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo says American work culture needs a "revolution" in how it thinks about hours on the job.
  • The traditional obsession with long hours as the hallmark of productivity needs to go, especially for women in the workforce.

At the pandemic's outset, many labor experts doubted that a professional work culture long defined by commutes and cubicles was ready to truly embrace remote employment. That's changed. The next revolution on the job? According to Nobel Prize-winning MIT economist Esther Duflo, it should be about the long hours synonymous with success.

The current work model that rewards extremely long workweeks is outdated, unmanageable, and is a contributing factor to the ongoing gender gap, making it a particularly important issue at a time when many women have left the workforce.

Decades of progress made by women in the workplace was reversed in the wake of Covid-19. As of February 2021, just one year into the pandemic, 2.3 million women had dropped out of the labor force. Globally, women lost $800 billion in income. The old-school work model forced women – most often the caretakers – to leave their jobs at a rate almost twice to that of men. And the trend remained throughout the pandemic. In August 2021, 41,000 women left the workforce, while 139,000 men joined in the same month, according to a report from the National Women's Law Center, which estimated that at this rate it would take near a decade for women to make up the lost jobs.

Congress is currently debating how to enact legislation that takes these issues into account. The "human capital" component of President Joe Biden's two-part infrastructure spending plan, which Democratic leaders are trying to pass this month, seeks to make paid family leave and child-care funding core components of the social safety net.

What makes a good worker? Not long hours

According to Duflo, work culture itself needs to change, and specifically, the American obsession with long hours that places a major limitation on women succeeding in their careers. She says it is time for "getting rid of this idea that a good worker is a worker that puts in 90 hours a week."

As much as the world of work has experienced an upheaval in the past two years, today's labor culture can still be compared to the 1950s "Mad Men" model, according to Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

"What that pandemic has shown us is that that model has never worked for women," Mason said. In a professional culture that glorifies being busy, women adapted because they had to, but work culture was never designed to work for them.

"The first [lesson we learned] is that the workplace and our workplace model was not working for most workers, or half of the workforce: women," Mason said.

Women are feeling severe effects of the pandemic work era, according to McKinsey & Company's annual "Women in the Workplace" report, which it conducted with women's advocacy group Lean In. The study reported that 1 in 3 women considered leaving or changing jobs in the last year. That was up from 1 in 4 women surveyed in 2020, highlighting the pressures of taking care of children and holding a job.

"Now we have an opportunity to create a workplace model that is reflective of today's workforce, and that is half women," Mason said. Taking professional women's needs into consideration means thinking about "caretaking responsibilities, workplace flexibility, all of the things that we know make a difference for women workers," she said.

An unsustainable employment culture

Shifting to remote work last year proved people could be as productive at home as they had been in the office, which should make it clear that long hours — the proverbial "time in seat" — is the wrong way to think about productivity going forward.

"Shifting from a culture of busy to a culture of goals and outcomes and productivity" is more important than showing your face in the workplace, Mason said. "What is necessary for people to be successful in their work and career and family life? Balance."

The current work culture is unsustainable, according to Julie Kashen, director of women's economic justice and senior fellow at The Century Foundation, "I think we will be a healthier and better society if we start shifting our values," she said.

That means employers need to treat employees "like people who have lives outside of the workplace," Kashen said, which will create more loyalty "and make people want to show up for their employers."

The pandemic has blurred the lines between "on the clock" and "off the clock," and the dynamics of balancing work at home have been challenging, which has not reduced the focus on hours worked regardless of where the work is done.

"Right now, success is so defined by working more hours instead of how much you are able to be there for your family, stay healthy and not burnout," Kashen said "We have all lived through this collective trauma for almost two years now, and if we don't recognize that we have a collective mental health issue, it will be harder to retain great employees."

As many workers reach the 20th month of working from home, 42% of women say they are burned out, according to the McKinsey/Lean In research.

The policy ideas being debated in Congress would offer support and alternative options for working mothers. "Transformative change is on the table for the first time in a very long time," Kashen said. "We may see Congress address some of these new key issues that would make a huge difference."

While a California congressman introduced legislation over the summer to reduce the standard workweek to four days, economists say we need the world of work to rethink its priorities in the wake of Covid.

Putting employee well-being first is the right thing to do regardless of any negative productivity results, Kashen said. Accommodating work changes for a pregnant worker, for example, "may seem to have immediate productivity implications that are negative, but it's the right thing to do to support that mother and baby. In the long run, doing so will likely support that employee's healthy return to work after a maternity leave, which has long-term positive productivity impacts by reducing turnover and continuing to invest in her experience."

"There is certainly a tendency in the U.S. for putting a lot of weight on extremely long hours for no particular reason," Duflo said. "Maybe we can all work more flexible hours, maybe the pandemic helped with that."

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