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Best Business Books 2005: Work and Life

Redivide Time
In The Time Divide, Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson, professors of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, respectively, bust myths about time-deprived families and time-greedy workplaces, and add fresh analysis to the debate about the overworked American. Whereas most researchers measure how people use their time — by either asking them or observing them — this book studies how workers feel about their time commitments, and how the particular cultures and structures of their workplaces affect them.

Drawing heavily on analysis of the National Study of the Changing Workforce conducted in 1992 and 1997 by the New York–based research nonprofit Families and Work Institute, the authors reveal the frustration of highly paid knowledge workers who are experiencing a gap between their actual and ideal division of time for work, family, and self. The employees who feel the most time-deprived are dual-income couples and single parents in demanding corporate jobs — none of whom have the support at home of a nonworking partner. Surveys show both men and women believe work demands cause them to shortchange their families and themselves. Parents with children under 18 say they feel significantly more stress than people without children, and 40 percent of all parents say they feel stress from work–family conflicts.

Among the books reviewed here, this one is densest, but it is worth the slog through the data and research methodologies to get to the authors’ conclusions. For example, without using the label, the authors point the finger at “presenteeism” as a factor that undermines the goals of family-friendly programs. “As long as the culture of the workplace and the message from bosses and supervisors equate work commitment with overwork,” they write, “workers face a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ set of alternatives that exact considerable costs no matter what the choice.” Corporations can counter this by making their own choice to recognize that increases in family time, downtime, and self-managed time lead to much higher levels of corporate productivity, commitment, and engagement. With such options as flexible hours and sabbaticals, people feel refreshed, renewed, and motivated to work.

Even though business leaders complain that the 35-hour workweek has made France less internationally competitive, Professors Jacobs and Gerson strongly advocate this change in the U.S. to lend support to working parents. It’s not clear that a 35-hour workweek law would solve the problem, but even an open-minded debate on the subject — counterintuitive though it may seem to those who preach about the incessant pressure of global competition — would be a symbolic reminder of the importance of downtime to the productivity of a company and a nation.

Slowing Down
Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness was inspired by a personal quest to get a life. In the opening pages, the author recalls the joy he experienced on a “sun-bleached” afternoon in 1985 as a teenager on a summer tour of Europe. Waiting for a bus near the outskirts of Rome, he lies down on a bench and turns up his Sony Walkman to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, soaking up a simple scene that, he writes, is “engraved” on his memory: two small boys kicking a soccer ball around a medieval fountain, tree branches scraping against an old stone wall, an elderly widow carrying her vegetables home in a bag.

Mr. Honoré’s epiphany came 15 years later, not far from that idyllic tableau. In 2000, he is a foreign correspondent for a Canadian newspaper racing through Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to catch a flight to London. “Instead of kickin’ down the cobblestones and feelin’ groovy,” he recalls, he’s resisting kicking anyone in his path as he runs with a cell phone at his ear to take the last place in line at the gate. “Standing in that lineup…I begin to grapple with the questions that lie at the heart of this book: Why are we always in such a rush?… Is it possible, and even desirable, to slow down?”

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