Sen. Robert Dole's recent attack on the corrosive effects of the entertainment industry on American society got me thinking about the great Family Values debate. Contrary to the popular notion that all journalists are Ivory soap liberals (100% pure), I agreed with many of Dole's criticisms. I have three small children of my own and would rate much of popular culture to be PG-13 or worse. And yet I think there's another factor that no one talks about, either because it's promulgated by a power structure that is inherently conservative in its attitudes and politics rather than liberal, or has become so insidious that no one draws the connection. I'm not certain when it began-perhaps with the LBO-driven restructurings of the 1980s--but American business has fostered a work ethic so consuming as to be damaging to family values in its own way. Middle managers in a great many companies seem to be working longer hours than ever. We have mylhologized the 80-hour workweek, and yet I question how much of this is ethos and how much is paranoia. People fear for their jobs. American businesses have treated their workers--blue-collar and white-collar alike--as fungible commodities, and they have gotten the message. I understand the need to compete in one's market as an efficient producer. But I understand the other side of the problem as well. Parents today are constantly juggling, constantly prioritizing. The growing demands of the workplace-especially for those families where both parents work, a choice for some but a necessity for many others-only makes the task more difficult. And speaking as a parent but not, of course, as a sociologist or psychologist, I think the concept of "quality time" is a rationalization that my generation (Boomer, Class of '52) uses to ease its own misgivings.
Obviously this problem is much bigger than just banking--it's a phenomenon that cuts across the entire economy. And yet banking is undergoing a painful restructuring of its own right now, driven by excess capacity and the need for greater productivity, so I suspect the problem is as acute here as anywhere. It seems almost un-American to complain about long hours and sacrifice. To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, `The work of Americans is work.' Truly there is no disputing the extraordinary value of what we have created in this country. Our economic structure is the foundation of our society. Companies large and small provide most of the jobs and most of the health care for a majority of Americans--my family included.
And yet it's precisely because of its central importance to our way of life that the workplace should not be exempted from scrutiny while Hollywood is dragged out for a public whipping, however well deserved. If success in the demanding corporate environment of the 1990s is not a 9-to-5 proposition, neither is successful parenting. And it seems that many working parents are approaching the burnout stage, which can't be a positive development for employers who are counting on their continued productivity. I don't believe that American companies can sit out the family values debate as if their practices were essentially amoral, anymore than they can insulate themselves from other currents running through contemporary life. What has the greatest negative impact on the family: violence and sex on television, or parents who are too tired and stressed out to actively parent? I don't know the answer, but I question whether the difference is big enough to fight over.