THE work ethic is alive and well, but not as the unequivocally enshrined value it once was. The motto of the 1990s worker seems to read: There is - there had better be - life after work.
A survey by Cambridge Reports/Research International of Cambridge, Mass., finds that, just since 1992, the numbers have doubled of those who prize a job for allowing them a margin of leisure to fulfill the obligations and pleasures of their private life.
And what if the time is not made available, in a workplace where men spend an average of 50 hours on the job and women 42 hours? Another survey - this one by Northwestern National Life Insurance - indicates that a third of workers polled think seriously of quitting their jobs because of excessive demands, and each year 1 of every 14 does.
A culture that for so long genuflected before Horatio Alger now finds it a fault to hustle compulsively, whether the overworker is President Clinton in the nonstop White House or Jim Courier, who puts in 11-hour workdays at tennis.
''Twenty-somethings are questioning the workaholic life style,'' according to Leonard Greenhaigh, a professor of management at Dartmouth College. And - surprise! - enlightened employers are beginning to agree for reasons of their own.
United Technologies is an example of corporate America perceiving the diminished returns of long hours. ''We're not trying to be nice guys,'' says one of that company's officers. Rather, the bottom-line assessment is that all work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy but a dull worker, prone to impaired creativity, sloppy performance, and burnout.
In 1967, a Senate subcommittee heard a ''greening of America'' prediction that by 1985 the workweek would be shortened to 22 hours and workers would retire at the ripe age of 38.
Well, not quite. On the other hand, the '90s panacea of ''downsizing,'' with the strategy of fewer employees doing more work, has been judged a practical success by only 17 percent of employers who have tried it.
In the name of efficiency, as well as sanity, the new wisdom is: Stay competitive but don't forget to lay back, chill out, and sniff the flowers as well. And that's an executive order.
If the end result is to combine in the American character the best of the ant and the best of the grasshopper, we say: Let the new balance begin.