BOSTON — FOR many Americans, the quest for work-family balance is more quixotic than ever. They feel time for family and leisure time is shrinking.
Economist Juliet Schor, author of ''The Overworked American,'' heartily agrees. And she points to consumerism as part of the problem.
''We have gotten ourselves entrenched in a cycle of work and spend -- a cycle of long hours and consumer mentality as a way of life,'' says Ms. Schor, a Harvard professor.
But some analysts dispute that Americans are working longer hours and have less time for leisure.
John Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland in College Park says Schor's data is faulty because it relies on the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey which asks people to recall the number of hours they worked. Mr. Robinson uses time diaries, which people use to track their activities, minute by minute over one or two days.
His analysis shows the hours people work are continuing to go down, and leisure time is increasing.
But Schor sticks to her guns, citing people's hurried lives to support her theory, which goes something like this: The longer you work, the more you make. The more you make, the more you spend. The more you spend, the longer you have to work. And the longer you work, the less time you have for family, community, and leisure activities.
''We are too much oriented in this society to keeping up with the Joneses, to constantly increasing norms of consumption [to the point] that there is no such thing as enough.''
This quest for a continually increasing standard of living jeopardizes families and communities, argues Schor, keynote speaker at a recent conference in Boston on work and family issues. ''Our basic social fabric is being ripped apart in order to maintain our position in the working-class system,'' she says.
Experts blame a corporate culture that still tends to reward employees based on office ''face'' time rather than on results. ''Time is a measure of commitment,'' Schor says.
The solution she and some other experts advocate is to change the way work gets done by creating a system where ''career success is not a function of the total amount of hours you work, but how effective you are in each of the hours you do work.''
But Schor adds that blame doesn't rest solely within the corporate reward structure. Americans have become consumer addicts. Two, three, even four-income families are becoming the norm, as Americans work harder and longer to keep up.
Statistically, Americans should have more leisure time, Schor contends. In the last 50 years, the United States has almost tripled its per-hour productivity. A worker in 1949 could only produce about one-third of what a worker today could produce in one hour.
Yet, in the last 25 years, working hours have climbed substantially, she says. Between 1969 and 1989, the average American has increased his or her working hours in the workplace and at home by 160 hours a year, according to the Census Bureau numbers. The middle-income dual-earner American family with two children puts in about 6,500 hours annually today, up from 5,000 hours in 1969.
What happened to that supposed free time? ''We have taken all of our productivity growth, and we have put it toward improving our material standard of living,'' says Schor, who is at work on a new book on consumerism.
For example, she cites that the average American house has more than doubled in size over the years; the average expenditures per person per year have increased 2-1/2 times; and consumption norms have crept up gradually as income has risen.
Regardless, workers still say they want to reduce their number of hours on the job. According to a recent survey of workers at a large telecommunications company, 70 percent said they would like to reduce their work hours but cited debt as a major obstacle.
Many corporations have responded to employees' needs to balance work and family by offering telecommuting, flex time, and job sharing.
But such programs undermine the goal of gender-equity in the workplace, says Joyce Fletcher, associate professor at Northeastern University in Boston, and a panel participant. Since women still bear the majority of child-care responsibilities, women primarily use these benefits.
As a result women are seen as less-willing and less-committed workers, Ms. Fletcher says, and it reinforces the false impression that family is more important to women than men.
Take an employee who works 80 hours a week and another who chooses to work 40 hours a week in order to spend more time caring for his or her children, dubbed the mommy-track or parent-track.
This mommy-track institutes a second-class job, Schor says, with lower pay and much less upward mobility. That sends the message that in order to participate in the unpaid labor force, employees must pay a big personal price, she says. Meanwhile, the company rewards the 80-hour employee with better pay and advancements even though that employee isn't contributing his or her fare share of social labor.