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'Extreme' jobs on the rise

Workers who choose 80-hour workweeks and no vacations, put life balance at risk, experts warn.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2006

Eleven hours a day, seven days a week, Cynthia McKay maintains a clockwork schedule. From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., she is in her office as CEO of LeGourmet Gift Basket in Castle Rock, Colo. That adds up to a 77-hour workweek, not counting her time at home on 24-hour call for clients around the world.

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But don't feel sorry for Ms. McKay. Her long hours are "absolutely my choice," she says, adding, "I love being at work. It becomes a lifestyle as opposed to a job."

That kind of schedule puts McKay in the rarefied company of a growing group of highly paid professionals who hold "extreme" jobs. One-fifth of high earners surveyed in the United States have such jobs, according to new research. In addition to logging 60 or more hours a week, many travel regularly, maintain fast-paced, unpredictable schedules, and respond to clients' demands around the clock.

Although workaholics have always existed, their image has been glamorized. Today's overachievers are cast as "road warriors and masters of the universe," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York. Yet despite their impressive financial rewards, those burning this midnight oil face challenges. Warning that their pace is not sustainable, Dr. Hewlett says, "There's a lot of risk attached. The fallout in private lives is huge." In addition, women are being left behind because many cannot put in 70-hour weeks.

Hewlett's report, "Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek," is published today in the Harvard Business Review.

What distinguishes these overachievers is their passion for their work. Two-thirds of high earners in a range of professions in the US and three-quarters of top managers in multinational corporations say they love their jobs.

"The big surprise of the data was just how much these extreme professionals love their work," Hewlett says. "It is a knowledge economy. Millions of people are amazingly challenged and stimulated by their work. That is good news."

Extreme jobs exist everywhere – in large manufacturing companies and small firms; in law, medicine, entertainment, media, technology; and on Wall Street.

Beyond extreme workers' personal ambitions, several cultural factors are helping to drive the trend, Hewlett says. One is globalization, which requires professionals to work across multiple time zones. Communication technology also plays a role, allowing workers to stay in constant contact. Increased competition for high-level positions and declining job security also encourage excessive work.

"There's something deep in our culture right now which really admires over-the-top pressure, over-the-top performance, over-the-top pay packages," Hewlett says.

Extreme jobs do not exist in a vacuum. "We're not just in an age of extreme work, we're in an age of extreme culture," says Catherine Orenstein, a cultural critic in New York. She points to the popularity of extreme sports, extreme parenting, and extreme reality shows.

In the beginning, Ms. Orenstein says, extreme sports offered "high risk for the fast and the few." Now they also appeal to those with ordinary skills. "We have reality TV shows like 'Fear Factor,' where average people do death-defying stunts. Even at the gym you can see sort of a trickle-down of this."

Today the extreme metaphor has spread to work and popular ideas of success, Orenstein says. " 'American Idol,' 'Project Runway,' and 'The Apprentice' are all shows about how you make it in America. Anyone with hard work, determination, risk, individualism, and bravado will be rewarded. But there's only one winner, so it's a jackpot idea."

In the 1950s, the popular cultural ideal of work and success was far different. "We had a notion of moderation," Orenstein says. "You can see it in 'Ozzie and Harriet.' For a reasonable amount of work over a reasonable amount of time, you have a reasonable amount of security and a reasonable amount of success. Now we have a more extreme notion of success and the amount of work that should go into it."

But these nonstop schedules require sacrifices that intrude on personal and family life. More than one-third of high-earning individuals work more than 60 hours a week, and most report that they are putting in an average of 16.5 hours per week more now than they did five years ago.