By Laura Vanderkam
FORTUNE -- There's a certain narrative circling the business world that modern white-collar types work harder than ever. Thanks to our smartphones, we're always on call. Thanks to our zest for teamwork, we spend our days in meetings -- and do our real work after hours. Certainly things must have been different 50-60 years ago. Then, we suppose, the Organization Man corporate structure meant streamlined decisions. Without email, people left work at work. Right?
Not really. According to a 1954 Fortune story titled "How hard do executives work?" executives have always thought they were working harder than anyone else in history. Intriguingly, 1950s sorts and our current crop of workers complain about very similar things.
In 1954, William H. Whyte Jr. (who later gained fame for writing The Organization Man) set out to study the modern executive's workweek. He and his team interviewed and compiled questionnaires from 221 "management men." With the post-war rise of labor saving devices, broad prosperity, and confiscatory tax rates on higher incomes, the smart money assumed that workweeks would become shorter.
If so, this assumption had yet to influence these 1950s high-flyers. "Executives are working as hard as they ever did," Whyte wrote. "It is difficult to see how they could possibly work harder." Indeed, "For the corporation man the balanced life is as elusive as ever, possibly more so."
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The normal workweek these executives described doesn't seem too grueling. "In most places the average executive office week runs between forty-five and forty-eight hours," Whyte wrote. "Most executives arrive at the office between 8:00 and 9:00 A.M. and leave about 5:30 or 6:00 P.M." The problem was that this was only just past the "halfway mark," Whyte noted, for a serious executive. "On the average he will work four nights out of five. One night he will be booked for business entertaining -- more, probably if he's a president. Another night he will probably spend at the office, or in a lengthy conference somewhere else. On two other nights he goes home, not to a sanctuary so much as to a branch office. Only a minority of executives have equipped their dens with dictating machines and calculators and such, but the majority devote at least two nights a week to business reading."
As for constant contact, it turns out that you don't need a smartphone to stay on all the time. Any phone will do. "Many executives simply cannot resist [the phone]," Whyte wrote -- even if it's the family landline. He quotes an Atlanta executive claiming, "I do a lot of spot checking by phone from home...I'd rather do that at night than in the day time. I have more time, and besides, most people have their guard down then."
A Chicago executive reported that sometimes dialing in from the home line was "not so good...particularly when you've won a battle with the kids as to which television program to turn on and then they have to sit and watch your program while you talk business" -- a reasonable sacrifice in a world where, without DVR, if you missed a program you missed it until the network deigned to do a rerun. "But on the whole," the executive confessed, "I don't really mind it."
One reason executives took work home? The same reason modern workers do: it's beastly hard to get anything done at the office. "Now that 'committee management' has become so much the rule, the average executive spends roughly six of his eight office hours talking with other executives in meetings and conferences," Whyte wrote. "The other two hours are not spent in solitary contemplation; they are no more than the sum of a few minutes here and there between meetings and the ringing of the telephone. The executive, as one puts it, is never alone. Never physically at any rate. In many instances the team play has grown so frenetic that executives look on the office day as something of an interruption in their actual work. This not only explains the amount of after-hours work, it also explains the tendency of many executives to get to work in the morning earlier than anyone else." More
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