SAY the word bankruptcy, and most people think in terms of a lack of money. Now culture-watchers are detecting signs of another kind of insolvency that is increasingly common, if less well publicized: ``time bankruptcy'' - a deficit of leisure brought on by long hours in the office and on the assembly line.
Downsizing, employment analysts explain, leaves fewer employees to do more work. This produces what Robert Kuttner, a columnist for BusinessWeek magazine, calls ``a terrible paradox - having to work longer hours for less security.'' For those on the fast track, he explains, very few 35-to-40-hour-a-week positions exist. And for those who hold factory jobs, he adds, overtime stands at an all-time high.
Speaking at a conference on employment issues at Radcliffe College last month, Mr. Kuttner noted a ``fundamental'' problem: Many people are working longer hours than they want to, while many others are not working at all. ``Something is profoundly wrong with the distribution of work, income, leisure, and reward,'' he said.
A government report issued jointly by the Labor and Commerce Departments last week confirms Kuttner's findings. It shows that workers in the United States spend more hours on the job than employees in any industrialized nation except Japan. Americans average 1,737 hours a year on the job, compared with 1,557 in Germany.
Beyond the predictable challenge of fatigue, overwork can have other, less obvious ramifications. A lack of free time can lead to what has been called an ``appreciation gap'' in families. As women in particular juggle two jobs, one at home, the other in the workplace, Kuttner says, ``Mothers don't have time for leisure. Both sexes feel they're trapped and not appreciated by their mates.''
Then there is the question of how to spend what little free time exists. A longer work week, Kuttner finds, often leads to the proliferation of passive, low-quality activities like TV viewing. Higher-quality leisure activities, such as painting, learning a language, and volunteering, require a much greater commitment of time and energy.
What can be done to reconcile the need to produce more jobs with the need to relieve excessive time demands on those currently employed?
Juliet Schor, author of ``The Overworked American'' and another participant at the Radcliffe conference, emphasizes that simply reducing working hours from 40 hours a week to 35 won't help unemployment. ``People will do as much work in 35 hours as in 40,'' she says.
To make a big dent in unemployment, Dr. Schor explains, companies must consider new work arrangements. These include allowing job sharing, adopting a four-day, 32-hour work week, and granting big vacation blocks to workers. Too few people have genuine choice in the hours they work, she finds. And too many employers and employees confuse longer hours with greater productivity - a connection that doesn't necessarily exist.
Long hours also means that paid work is crowding out unpaid work. Schor sees a need for employers and employees to take a hard look at what she calls ``caring labor'' outside the market. These tasks, which include child care and elder care, remain greatly needed, but undervalued.
Beyond the question of overwork and time bankruptcy, there lies in ambush the other sneaky little question: Work for what? The rewards grow dubious for those too tired or too short on free time to enjoy them.
Greed did not die with the '80s, but as the consumer cycle of earn-more, spend-more seems to make a little less sense, the word ``satisfaction'' is emerging as a more central concept. At the Radcliffe seminar Kuttner concluded: ``We're living too high on the hog. The level of material consumption is not good for the planet and not very satisfying.''
Spoken like a philosopher rather than a bottom-line economist. But maybe philosophers are what all workers are becoming as they strive more and more to bring balance to their lives.