Harvard Business Review hides behind data about extreme jobs

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This month the Harvard Business Review has an article titled Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek (subscription required). This article presents all the research to show that the destruction of the family comes faster in situations where both parents work long hours, but the authors, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, refuse to draw this conclusion. Instead they harp on what is now a baby-boomer fetish topic: Women getting equal treatment at work.

The research shows that full-time jobs are increasingly extreme jobs (more than 60 hours a week). The authors point out that most people who have extreme jobs have chosen them, and they tend to be very exciting jobs. Other reports show that some people are so smitten with their extreme jobs that they brag about how stressed and overworked they are. (Thanks, Ben.)

Hewlett and Luce write that “the extreme-work model is wreaking havoc on private lives.” However most of the reasons cited (e.g.kids watching too much TV and no one taking care of the house) would be alleviated if one parent were at home. So the extreme-work model is actaully fine, as long as women (it’s almost always women) are willing to drop out of the workforce to stay at home. And, in an article that enraged many of the readers of this blog, Lucy Kellaway writes in the Economist that yes, in fact women are more than willing to leave the office to take care of kids.

Hewlett and Luce try to make an issue out of gender: Extreme workers are mostly men, women in extreme jobs are most likely to say they want to leave the job in a year, and the people who thrive in extreme jobs either do not have kids or have someone at home taking care of their kids. But who cares? There are plenty of jobs people can take if they don’t want extreme jobs.

Hewlett and Luce try to get us alarmed that the trend toward extreme jobs is increasing, but most people who are in extreme jobs are baby boomers, and Sharon Jayson, wirting in USA Today, shows that most young people don’t want extreme jobs. And young people are adept at finding work that fits regardless of what companies are offering.

I am tired of the baby boomers thinking all their research about themselves applies to everyone. I am also tired of every researcher jumping on the battle-cry-for-women bandwagon. Hewlett and Luce spend a lot of time writing about how moms cannot do extreme jobs. But who cares? If people who don’t have kids want to work tons of hours, let them. If men want to marry stay-at-home moms to take care of their kids, let them. What is the big deal here? There is plenty of work in this world for people who don’t want extreme jobs. There are plenty of men to marry who will do their part with the kids.

The real problem here is that two parents with extreme jobs are neglecting their kids. What about that? Baby boomers have been doing it for decades, and it’s terrible for kids, and people need to start admitting that. For starters, Hewlett and Luce could come out and say this, since their research supports it.

For example, the most scary part of the article is the snowball effect of working long hours while leaving kids at home:

“As household and families are starved for time, they become progressively less appealing and both men and women begin to avoid going home…For many professionals ‘home and work’ have reversed roles. Home is the source of stress and guilt, while work has become the ‘haven in the heartless world’ — the place where successful professionals get strokes, admiration and respect.”

The research also highlights one of my pet peeves in career news: “It’s extremely rare for parents to admit having problems with their children.” I cringe every time I read an interview with a “Successful Mom” who works a 70 hour week and can miraculously balance her kids and husband’s 70-hour week as well. All of this womens magazine BS is self-reported, and what mom or dad is going to stand up and say they are destroying the kids by working long hours? The only one’s who pipe up, like Brenda Barnes, quit their job before they start talking.

Here’s what the Harvard Business Review article should have said: The long-standing practice of baby boomers to have dual-career families with no one home for the kids is bad for the kids, even if the parents are enjoying themselves. Fortunately, the post-boomer generations recognize the problem and plan to not repeat it.

31 replies
  1. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    What an awesome post, Penelope.

    The bottom line is that no one (in this country at least) has a gun put to their head to take a particular job. Not at Wal-Mart, and not at McKinsey.

    If people want to complain about the world forcing them to work long hours, they should take a long, hard look in the mirror.

    I work more than I like, but I’m comfortable with the tradeoffs I’m making. And the responsibility lies with me, not the company, or the government.

  2. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    Great post! I also found your cross-post at idealawg and am happy to see someone in the career field arguing against the extreme job tide. Bottom line is that there are many choices, many options, and no one set of choices that is right for everyone. Women who stay home to take care of their kids should not be made to feel bad as if they gave up something and men who don’t make their jobs the biggest priority should be not be viewed as having “given up” on their careers. 70-hour week? I want to figure out how to do a 30 hour week. Maybe I can make a contribution in one hour that is greater than 2000 hours of some hotshot lawyer’s life…

  3. Cara
    Cara says:

    Great post! I enjoyed the article about bragging about stress. What a warped pasttime! I have one correction on the article: sometimes, even your spouse doesn’t want to hear you vent and may even try to one-up you. This is why I rarely talk about my job to my husband anymore. He is THE classic one-upper!

  4. JenFlex
    JenFlex says:

    I agree with Chris…even more, I question the degree to which Boomers’ critical mass as a cohort has enabled them to simply ignore information they don’t want to hear. Penelope, isn’t that really what you’re observing…that the Harvard researchers uncovered evidence that dual-career families in the service of extreme jobs are trashing families, and then ignored it?

    Not that this is peculiar to the boomers (flat-earth theory, anyone?), but it is troublesome.

    Love this blog…thanks for the continued insight…

  5. stever
    stever says:

    maybe some stay-at-home moms are finding that being a stay at home mom is their extreme job and want to get into a different group of whining babies — yay for moms with IT jobs! :)

  6. Dylan Tweney
    Dylan Tweney says:

    “The long-standing practice of baby boomers to have dual-career families with no one home for the kids is bad for the kids, even if the parents are enjoying themselves. Fortunately, the post-boomer generations recognize the problem and plan to not repeat it.”


  7. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    I know my wife would far rather work outside the home than stay home and take care of the kids. We both might wish differently, but sometimes you have to face up to the facts.

    I might be able to handle staying home, but alas, my ability to make money makes this financially impractical.

  8. Cara
    Cara says:

    “Fortunately, the post-boomer generations recognize the problem and plan to not repeat it.”

    I agree, despite all the pressures the boomer bosses place on us to do so!

  9. Meaghan
    Meaghan says:

    Awesome post. It is always the highly affluent and highly professional boomers whipping themselves into a frenzy over their own decisions, as far as I am concerned. While they’re busy debating who should be able to work longer for more pay and more recognition, there are a lot of kids at home who could use some parenting.

  10. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Thanks for all the great comments.

    I really appreciate that I’m part of a community of people who want to dicuss this topic.

    I like Steve’s comment that being a mom is an extreme job for some. This would have been a good thing for me to rant a little about in the post.

    Re 9rules – thanks to those who noticed. I’m really excited. More on that later…

  11. Diana
    Diana says:

    The part about home/work lives being reversed is so sad, but I can see the truth in it. How terrible!

    So many debates about stay-at-home parents! Kids benefit from having close interaction with BOTH parents, although very few people are wealthy enough for neither parent to work. I hate the idea that having one parent stay at home somehow excuses the other parent from being there for their child.

    And it’s true… women are usually the ones who quit their job to look after the kids. I don’t have any kids yet, so I can’t really say what choice I would make… but if I did choose to stay home it would be my decision made in the best interest of the family, and if my husband wanted to make that choice instead, I would completely support him in that. It’s all about the choices you make, and who cares if people think you’re trying to be June Cleaver!

  12. Sally
    Sally says:

    Why is it that Gen X and Y constantly complain about boomers who are always whining about the difficulty of balancing home and work, but feel more than justified in doing their own whining about the "Quarter Life Crisis"? Getting into a career that feels satisfying and pays the bills is not easy. Neither is trying to find a career that feels satisfying, pays the bills, AND allows people to have any kind of real relationship with their children. I was born at the juncture between the baby boom and Gen X, and see all sides. The biggest problem as I see it is that our society has very little flexibility in allowing people to do something that feels right and allows them to make a decent living at the same time. We value material things, so people in lucrative careers are revered, not only because of the money, but because they are seen as "important." Everyone pays lip-service to stay-at-home parents or to people in professions such as teaching, but there is no real respect or reward by society at large(other than feeling that you are doing the right thing, which sometimes wears pretty thin when you see some moron making all that money). There is even less flexibility in trying to accomplish all of the above and buck the sex role stereotypes that are subtly beaten into our heads our whole lives. People like to pretend that they are making their own decisions because no one is holding a gun to their heads, but "decisions" are not made in a vacuum. We are all greatly influenced by our society, and it's hard to imagine the repercussions that a decision to stay home with you kids (made at the age of 30) will have on your career ten or twenty years down the road. If we really valued children and families, we wouldn't make having a career and having kids such an impossible task. I feel that my husband and I (both people with master's degrees) were basically forced into stereotypical roles by the unrealistic demands placed on him in his job and on me to be the primary parent of three boys. But we had no idea at the time we made that choice what the repercussions were going to be down the road. It wasn't until ten years later (when our marriage was in serious trouble) that we realized what we had done. Fortunately, we were able to work it through but it was excruciating. I don't know why it has to be such an impossibility for two professional people to each work 20 or 30 hours a week and support a family. But for the most part it's extremely difficult. The work culture demands 40, 50, or 60 hours a week in order to have decent pay, benefits and a responsible job. Having both parents work those kinds of hours and still do a decent job at parenting is pretty much impossible, so very often one person ends up staying home (overwhelmingly the woman) and the other works all the time (overwhelmingly the man). The woman loses in terms of self-esteem and earning power, and the dad loses in his relationship to his children. Society loses the talents of one highly-educated person and loses some of the productivity of the employed parent, who becomes stressed and burned out. Children lose the ability to see both men and women participating in all areas of life. Basically, everybody loses except people who value money over families and children, which unfortunately is a lot more people than we would like to think.

    * * * * * * *

    This comment is a good representation of how people this age (late baby boomers, early gen-xers) typically describe these situations. I don’t actually see things this way — for example, I think people are not forced into dual careers or gender stereotypes, I think they choose them. But I think it’s important to understand where each demographic group is coming from on these issues. Also, we see our own points of view better when we see a different perspective as well.

    To that extent, I encourage this sort of generational ranting — I think it educates us all.


  13. Sally
    Sally says:

    I would have said exactly the same thing 15 years ago. It will be interesting to see what people this age think when they have a couple of kids and a few more years under their belts.

  14. Nikki
    Nikki says:

    Sally, I understand your perspective. Particularly if that perspective is shaped by the idea that you go to school, get a job, start a family and once that is accomplished stay at job and get steady raises and promotions (possibly job hop once or twice at high level) then retire. In that paradigm, you stay with the job even if the hours go up or whatever demands are made to move ahead. I knew the game changed when upon graduating from college I couldn’t get a decent job. I had been taught that you go to college and a degree guaranteed you a job, not so. Along with witnessing general job instability and the callousness of the hiearchy in business, I realized that these paradigms needed to be tossed.

    Too bad it has taken me ’til my thirties to realize and investigate that there are other options than go to school then work. I regret that I did not save more money in my twenties and establish some job independent income streams. Enough to comfortably cover the basics of living, so that I could take the types of jobs and hours that I want. Or, if I lost a job suddenly, I would have the money to go back to school or whatever. It is considerably more difficult for me to do that now than then, but I have to create my own flexibility that works for me.

  15. Tom
    Tom says:


    Great article! I’m 40 and I’ve been a workaholic. A couple of years ago I got really sick with West Nile Virus. (You can read about my WNV hell on my blog at: http://tblars.blogspot.com/2007/03/west-nile-virus-should-i-be-afraid-or.html ) Anyway, my point is that once I got sick, I realized that I didn’t spend enough time with my kids. I still don’t spend as much time with my kids as I would like. But I’m not working the long hours that I used to work. My wife and family are more important. I have missed some of my kids’ kindergarten graduations. I have a son that just graduated from kindergarten this year. I was there playing the role of the proud Dad. I have worked for companies and bosses that expected work to be the most important thing. And I have worked for other companies and bosses where family is important as well. And I’ve had a heavy dose of reality check myself. I tend to be a workaholic, but I’m getting better at it.

    Again, thank you for the article. You do a fine job. Keep up the good work.


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