9 to 5 and then some, and then some, and then some...

Call it too much of a good thing - too much prosperity and too much work to achieve it.

With the country's economy in its longest-running expansion in history and employment at record highs, Americans are working, working, and then working some more - harder than they have in years, harder than workers in every other industrialized country.

Stories abound of 12- and 14-hour days; of companies that cut workers but don't cut work; and of Americans who are too busy to take a vacation.

Beepers, cell phones, and laptops keep us constantly wired to the office. We're sleeping less, commuting more. And the rise in dual-income families means less weekend time devoted to leisure and more to errands.

This is hardly a white-collar phenomenon, either.

"The bar clearly is being raised. Expectations are being raised, and hours committed to the job clearly are going up," says Jeff Thredgold, president of Thredgold Economic Associates in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Americans have always worked hard - chalk it up to that good old Puritan culture. But government figures show a rise in the average work week for prime workers (ages 25-54), from 39.6 in 1982 to 41 hours in 1996. And even that figure skews to the low side because it includes part-time workers.

According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, which analyzes census data, between 1979 and 1989, average annual hours worked jumped 78 hours.

Fast forward to 1996 and the workweek gets even longer - 45 hours more per year than in 1989 for the average worker. Time on the job in 1989 came to 1,823 hours and rose by almost an hour a week to 1,868 in 1996.

And while some economists argue that perception and reality are often different - that workers tend to exaggerate reality - few would claim the American workweek is getting anything but longer.

"It's an imperfect question and it's an imperfect answer," says Lonnie Golden, assistant professor of economics at Pennsylvania State University, but "I've reviewed a dozen or more surveys, and they all point in the same direction - that hours are rising."

A landmark survey of 3,000 households by the New York-based Families and Work Institute found that average hours on the job have risen from 43.6 hours in 1977 to 47.1 in 1997.

"There's another factor that's causing people to feel greater stress," says Joyce Gioia, co-founder of The Herman Group, a workplace consulting firm in Greensboro, N.C.

"Our world is changing around us at an ever-increasing pace. It takes energy to adapt to change. Not only are workers having to do more with less, but the ground keeps moving under them ... so that they don't even have that to hold onto for a sense of security."

She, for example, says it's not uncommon for her to be doing laundry at 1 a.m. "It's a matter of just not having all the hours to get everything done."

When talking about clocking more and more hours, the finger-pointing most often starts with corporate America.

More work, fewer workers

Downsizing is one factor.

It has created a leaner work culture: more work but often fewer workers to do the work.

At the same time, companies are under constant pressure to produce a better product and to produce it faster and cheaper - or else the competition will.

"It makes sense for corporations to get as much work per hour as they can out of people, since there are a lot of fixed overhead costs that come with adding new employees," says Penn State's Professor Golden. "It's an incentive to work people longer hours."

But workers complain that there seems to be no limit. And that they feel pressured to produce to keep their jobs.

"One of the biggest complaints I hear from employees is that they're expected to put in really long hours," says Bonnie Michaels, a work-life consultant in Evanston, Ill.

"If someone pulls into the parking lot at 6:30 a.m., the company expects 10 more cars to follow," she says. "It's usually not spoken. But if you want to be seen as a top performer - as getting ahead - you need to be here when we're here."

Take Kelsey Price, a sales manager at Presentation Products near Los Angeles, which sells high-tech, multi-media equipment for business meetings and presentations. Her day starts at 7:30 a.m. and doesn't stop until 7 p.m., often later. She typically skips lunch and puts in extra hours on the weekends.

"There's so much to do, it's like the list grows," Ms. Price says. "I came in this morning and I had 33 e-mails, and they just don't stop."

She knows her schedule is par for the course regardless of company or industry.

"With such intense competition, people always have in the back of their minds that if you are going to survive you have to be excellent," she says, "and that standard of excellence is constantly being raised."

Then there's technology.

We're wired to the hilt - beepers, pagers, cell phones, laptops. All this gadgetry, however, has not only speeded up the work we do, but has blurred the line between the job and life away from the job.

We now conference call in our cars, check messages from the airplane, and write late-night memos from home. "There's no break today, for many people from work," says John Challenger of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago.

But Americans may not be camped at the office just because they want to keep their jobs - that Volvo station wagon and 3,000 square-foot house may have something to do with it. (See story, right.)

We work a lot. We spend a lot. As a result we can't afford to work less until we start spending less.

"Keeping up with the state-of-the-art luxury goods and services has always been present, but never as intensive as it is today," Golden argues.

Still, too much of a good thing can bring costly mistakes on the job and bigger problems personally.

Balance between work and personal life is often "what gives life meaning," Challenger says. "When those get too far out of balance, you see burnout and depression, and often people's lives see a lot of bumps in the road."

Just bragging?

Yet some argue that Americans really aren't clocking more hours. Rather they're spending more time playing - and that can be exhausting, too.

"People want to project themselves as leading busier lives than they actually are," says John Robinson, head of the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland. "But it doesn't look like we are any more frantic than we were some time back."

Since 1965, he has been using time diaries to ask Americans to describe what they do in a day. At the end of the day what they actually did was often less than what they reported.

Part of the reason for the overworked feeling, he offers, is that people have too many choices - too many movies to see, TV shows to watch, sporting events to attend, computers to upgrade, portable CD players to buy. "All of that makes us feel like we are missing out," he says.

Still, the battle cry goes on.

"There is supposedly this American way of putting your heart and soul into the whole capitalistic dream," says sales manager Price. "I'm not faulting that, but it's easy to give up more and more of your thought, talent, and energy to your job. That is becoming a very strong paradigm.

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