After World War II, when most Americans worked in factories and punched time cards, few people worked longer than 40 hours a week. Some professions, like law and medicine, have always expected newcomers to work long hours, but young workers looked forward to more leisure time once they “made it.” Today, almost everyone is working more than 40 hours a week and not getting paid any extra, at a time when workers in Europe are dropping down to 35 or even 30 hours a week, along with a mandated 4 to 6 weeks of vacation. What’s wrong with us?

The answer is obviously a shortage of jobs and few unions. When manufacturing jobs moved overseas, the service jobs that replaced them didn’t unionize, so every worker is on his (or her) own. Due to the cost of training, medical benefits and social security, employers find it cheaper to make their employees work longer hours than to hire more people. This is an especially hard blow for working mothers, who at one time dreamed of sharing “half time” jobs with other moms, so they could spend more time with their kids. With the hours their husbands are keeping, dads don’t get to see much of their kids either.

Jon Bonne writes in msnbc.com that the line has blurred between white and blue collar workers, and what employers look at today is your commitment to the job. This means that when there’s more to do, you end up staying in the office longer. “The social contract is shifting,” says Susan Meisinger, of the Society for Human Resource Management. “For the jobs that fall into the category of knowledge worker, I think the lines are much blurrier.”

Economist Peter Kuhn says many men now work over 50 hours a week, and most of them are highly educated, well paid, white-collar workers?the same people who got a college education so they wouldn’t have to work so hard later on. “It used to be that when you got a college degree you could get a white-collar job and take it easy,” Kuhn says. “It’s just the opposite now. It’s blue-collar folks who have more time for leisure.”

The buzzword for this is “shared goals,” meaning the employee is supposed to care as much about his company’s bottom line as his boss does, and to work overtime in hopes of being compensated later on, when the firm succeeds. “They?re seeing tangible results, and they know that their management up the chain understands that they’re putting that in,” says Will Werhane of International Survey Research. But people like former Enron workers, who invested both time and money in their company, feel exploited. And recent layoffs show that worker loyalty isn’t always rewarded. New taxes, that bring relief only to company CEOs, increase this feeling.

Feminist mothers are beginning to feel that the workplace is exploiting their social gains. In the 1950s, when only Dad worked outside the home, one salary bought what two salaries does today?and Dad was always home in time for supper at six. Sociologist Jerry Jacobs says, “It’s putting a tremendous amount of pressure on family life.”

The problem? As Meisinger says, “There are some companies that are what I would describe as Neanderthal.”

How can we learn to live a spiritual life when we’re working so hard all day? The secret is meditation.

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