Would Life Be Better if You Worked Less?
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Would Life Be Better if You Worked Less?

From part-time hours to four-day workweeks, Americans experiment with living more

By RACHEL FEINTZEIG
Tue, Apr 4, 2023 8:37amGrey Clock 4 min

Stephen E. Griffith was working up to 80 hours a week. He was frustrated by the bureaucracy of mounting meetings and craved time with family. So in 2021, he left his thriving practice at a Kansas City, Mo., hospital, and decided to work less.

The neurosurgeon now puts in about one-half to two-thirds of the hours he used to, picking up temporary assignments through a medical-staffing agency, sometimes traveling as far as Oregon. He’s still a doctor and still heals people. But he also goes on midmorning jogs with his wife. He drives his kids to music class. He’s taken more vacations in recent months—to Hawaii, Grand Cayman, Mexico—than during entire years of his past life as a hospital-employed physician.

“Time is a currency,” the 47-year-old says. “Gone are the days where you sign on the dotted line and you can be there for just as long as they tell you to be.”

People with all sorts of jobs seem to agree. They’re reconsidering their relationship to work, how much of their time it swallows, and making changes. In February 2023, 21.9 million Americans were working part time voluntarily, up from 20.7 million the prior year. Meanwhile, some participants in a four-day workweek experiment in the U.K. say there is no amount of money that could make them go back. Lawmakers stateside have taken notice, proposing legislation that would cut the standard workweek here to 32 hours.

It’s hard not to look around and wonder: Would my life be better if I worked less?

“You have this sense of, you’ve taken control of your life,” says Kevin Richardson, who works about 25 hours from Monday through Thursday for a small creative agency. “You see the work as part of your life, rather than the centre.”

Newfound freedom

Dr. Richardson shifted to part-time freelance work last year at the behest of his wife, Lindsay King, who was already down to 15 to 20 hours a week. Freed from the cost and stress of finding paid child care, they can swap who’s in charge of their one- and four-year-old boys. They’ve even been able to relocate to international spots for months at a time.

Speaking recently from a house set amid olive and orange groves in Kalamata, Greece, Dr. King told me she can’t see herself returning to full-time work, even when her children are older.

“I would just have many other things I want to do with my life,” she says, citing travel, volunteering, gardening and long-distance running.

Not that it’s picture perfect. The couple hasn’t amassed enough savings to buy a house in Texas, their home base, and they know they work at the whims of the organisations for which they freelance. Their gigs could dry up at any time.

‘Why did we all work five days?’

For plenty of workers, the possibility of putting in fewer hours simply isn’t an option because they need the money—especially amid inflation—or because of the type of jobs they do.

Some people working fewer hours, including Dr. Richardson, told me they make the same money as before. But contractors are on their own for health insurance and miss out on company benefits like paid time off.

Other workers take big pay cuts to shift to part-time hours only to contend with pressure to pop open their laptops on their day off anyway, or find they’re cut off from key company discussions and promotions.

The answer could be entire organisations where everyone’s putting in fewer hours, says Brendan Burchell, a sociology professor at the University of Cambridge who’s studied how work hours affect psychological well-being.

Humans need work to give structure to our days, to bestow purpose and self-esteem, he says. But we don’t need that much of it. A 2019 paper from Prof. Burchell and several co-authors found that people performing one to eight hours of paid work a week got the same mental health boost—less anxiety, less depression—as those who work 44 to 48 hours a week.

In the future, “We’ll look back and think, why did we all work five days?” Prof. Burchell says.

The part-time business model

Employing mostly part-time workers has helped Sam McKenna’s sales-consulting business be nimble and save money.

“We don’t have people who we’re paying 40 hours who only need 20 hours to get their jobs done,” the Washington, D.C.-area resident says. “We don’t pay overly competitive salaries. We don’t have health benefits.”

And yet, job candidates flood the team with inquiries each month, Ms. McKenna says, even when the company doesn’t have openings. Before the pandemic, it was mostly stay-at-home moms, as well as military and expat spouses who would express interest. These days, Ms. McKenna says she hears from high-powered executives at major consulting and financial-services companies who crave meaningful work, but want a slower pace.

Ms. McKenna initially envisioned herself working part time, too. She left her job at LinkedIn to launch the business in late 2019 with a goal of making half the money she had previously, in half the time she used to spend working.

“I wanted balance,” she says. But as clients kept coming, she swiftly ramped up to 60 hours a week. Keeping up with demand took, well, more work. “You can only do so much part-time.”

Peak performance

Many have found their long hours give diminishing returns.

A full-time employee earlier in her career, environmental engineer Megan Neiderhiser remembers loitering by the water cooler, chatting with colleagues. Now, working 30 hours a week, but aiming for the same revenue targets as her full-time colleagues, she bookmarks every hour for specific goals and doesn’t waste her 40-person team’s time with excess meetings.

Fridays are for yoga classes and playing with her kids, affording her time to think and relax. The Salt Lake City resident says she has better ideas and a better attitude come Monday.

“I’m just convinced,” she says, “this is my top performance.”



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The Lifespan of Large Appliances Is Shrinking

Appliance technicians blame a push toward computerisation and an increase in the quantity of components inside a machine

By RACHEL WOLFE
Thu, Feb 22, 2024 4 min

Our refrigerators, washing machines and ovens can do more than ever, from producing symmetrical ice cubes to remotely preheating on your commute home. The downside to all these snazzy features is that the appliances are more prone to breaking.

Appliance technicians and others in the industry say there has been an increase in items in need of repair. Yelp users, for example, requested 58% more quotes from thousands of appliance repair businesses last month than they did in January 2022.

Those in the industry blame a push toward computerisation, an increase in the quantity of individual components and flimsier materials for undercutting reliability. They say even higher-end items aren’t as durable.

American households spent 43% more on home appliances in 2023 than they did in 2013, rising from an inflation-adjusted average of $390 to $558, according to Euromonitor International. Prices for the category declined 12% from the beginning of 2013 through the end of 2023, according to the Labor Department.

One reason for the discrepancy between spending and prices is a higher rate of replacement, say consumers, repair technicians and others. That’s left some people wishing they had held on to their clunky ’90s-era appliances and others bargaining with repair workers over intractable ice makers and dryers that run cold.

“We’re making things more complicated, they’re harder to fix and more expensive to fix,” says Aaron Gianni, the founder of do-it-yourself home-repair app Plunjr.

Horror stories

Sharon J. Swan spent nearly $7,000 on a Bosch gas range and smart refrigerator. She thought the appliances would last at least through whenever she decided to sell her Alexandria, Va., home and impress would-be buyers.

That was before the oven caught fire the first time she tried the broiler, leading to a 911 call and hasty return. The ice-maker in the refrigerator, meanwhile, is now broken for the third time in under two years. Bosch covered the first two fridge fixes, but she says she’s on her own for the latest repair, totalling $250, plus parts.

“I feel like I wasted my money,” says the 65-year-old consultant for trade associations.

A Bosch spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that the company has been responsive to Swan’s concerns and will continue to work with her to resolve ongoing issues. “Bosch appliances are designed and manufactured to meet the highest quality standards, and they are built to last,” she said.

Kevin and Kellene Dinino wish they had held on to their white dishwasher from the ’90s that was still working great.

The sleeker $800 GE stainless steel interior dishwasher they purchased sprang a hidden leak within three years, causing more than $35,000 worth of damage to their San Diego kitchen.

Home insurance covered the claim, which included replacing the hardwood down to the subfloor and all their bottom cabinetry, but kicked the Dininos off their policy. The family also went without access to their kitchen for months.

“This was a $60 pump that was broken. What the hell happened?” says Kevin, 45, who runs a financial public-relations firm.

A GE Appliances spokeswoman said the company takes appliance issues seriously and works quickly to resolve them with consumers.

Increased complexity

Peel back the plastic on a modern refrigerator or washing machine and you’ll see a smattering of sensors and switches that its 10-year-old counterpart lacks. These extra components help ensure the appliance is using only the energy and water it needs for the job at hand, technicians say. With more parts, however, more tends to go wrong more quickly, they say.

Mansoor Soomro, a professor at Teesside University, a technical college in Middlesbrough, England, says home appliances are breaking down more often. He says that manufacturers used to rely mostly on straightforward mechanical parts (think an on/off switch that triggers a single lever). In the past decade or so, they’ve transitioned to relying more on sophisticated electrical and computerised parts (say, a touch screen that displays a dozen different sensor-controlled wash options).

When a complicated machine fails, technicians say they have a much harder time figuring out what went wrong. Even if the technician does diagnose the problem, consumers are often left with repairs that exceed half the cost of replacement, rendering the machine totalled.

“In the majority of cases, I would say buying a new one makes more economic sense than repairing it,” says Soomro, who spent seven years working at Siemens , including in the home-appliances division.

These machines are also now more likely to be made with plastic and aluminium rather than steel, Soomro says. High-efficiency motors and compressors, too, are likely to be lighter-duty, since they’re tasked with drawing less energy .

A spokeswoman for the Association for Home Appliance Manufacturers says the industry has “enhanced the safety, energy efficiency, capacity and performance of appliances while adding features and maintaining affordability and durability for purchasers.” She says data last updated in 2019 shows that the average life of an appliance has “not substantially shifted over the past two decades.”

When simpler is better

Kathryn Ryan and Kevin Sullivan needed a new sensor to fix their recently purchased $1,566 GE Unitized Spacemaker washer-dryer. GE wasn’t able to fix the sensor for months, so the couple paid a local technician $300 to get the machine working.

The repairman also offered them a suggestion: Avoid the sensor option and stick to timed dries.

“You should be able to use whatever function you please on a brand new appliance, ideally,” says Sullivan, a 32-year-old musician in Burbank, Calif.

More features might seem glamorous, Frontdoor virtual appliance tech Jim Zaccone says, but fewer is usually better.

“Consumers are wising up to the failures that are happening and going, ‘Do I really need my oven to preheat while I’m at the grocery store?’” jokes Zaccone, who has been in the appliance-repair business for 21 years.

He just replaced his own dishwasher and says he bought one with “the least bells and whistles.” He also opted for a mass-market brand with cheap and readily available parts. Most surprisingly, he chose a bottom-of-the-line model.

“Spending a lot of money on something doesn’t guarantee you more reliability,” says Zaccone.

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