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9/11 and the American Family

How much stress did the terrorist attacks add to family life in the United States?

December 5, 2001

Credit: Borislav Bajkic -

To be sure, the terrorist attacks and anthrax-laced letters have heightened anxiety levels among Americans. But the root cause of their overall stress level long predates Osama bin Laden’s machinations. For at least a decade, Americans have been dedicating a growing share of their daily lives to their jobs, leaving less and less time for other activities.

In the United States, annual hours worked per person rose to 1,979 in 2000 — up 36 hours, or almost one full week, from the 1990 level. Furthermore, according to the International Labor Organization, the average American works 260 hours more than British workers — and a staggering 499 more hours per year than German workers.

But it is not just Europeans that work less than Americans. Even the Japanese work 137 fewer hours per year than their U.S. counterparts.

By a variety of social indicators, Americans have become grossly overworked and stressed out. For example, they spend more time on commuting than with their families and friends. Just like U.S. airlines, by September 11, 2001 U.S. families were almost ready to throw in the towel due to overload or overstretch.

An early warning of things to come was provided in 1993 in a best-selling book by Harvard professor Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of American Leisure. The book noted an alarming tendency of the early 1990s. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the workweek in the United States was expanding. After accounting for working, commuting and doing household chores, leisure time had shrunk to just 16 hours per week already a decade ago.

Things have gotten a lot worse since then. The prosperity of the 1990s was the longest in U.S. history — and, in due course, incomes at all levels of society increased. But instead of kicking back and enjoying all the extra money and enhanced job security coming from a tight labor market, Americans became busier than ever.

One reason Americans have become busier rather than enjoying more leisure time is that jobs have gradually become less secure — and less likely to offer health and pension benefits. Many workers — just think of part-time nurses, security guards and librarians — have been forced to take on two or more jobs just to make ends meet.

Whatever income growth was recorded for middle class families over the 1990s was the result of more family members working more hours each year, not higher wages.

On the other end of the equation there are the factory workers in the automotive industry. This industry has always been known for its highly paid employees. Plenty of them make $90,000 per year. And a two-income blue-collar couple could make a whopping $180,000. But these wages include a heavy dose of compensation for overtime, forcing couples to each work a 55-hour week.

Aside from a long workday, there is also an increasingly long commute. Commuting time exploded as Americans craved larger homes and had to move further into suburbs, or even so-called “ex-urbs,” to get them.

Even spending time with their kids becomes an illusion. Parents come home after the kids have gone to bed — and spend weekends in front of the TV set out of sheer exhaustion.

Hence the urban sprawl — and the daily experience of massive traffic jams. An under-appreciated aspect of America’s love affair with the SUV is the need to spend so many hours in their vehicles, turning them into veritable living rooms on wheels.

One city well known for its traffic problems is Atlanta. In 1999, the average Atlanta resident lost 53 hours a year to traffic delays. Mind you, that figure is not the time spent commuting — only the time waiting during commutes. Significantly, that number has more than doubled from the 25 hours in 1992.

Americans pride themselves on their love for kids and family. Rightly so, but the recent exclusive focus on the nuclear family is a major negative side effect of the overworked, overstressed lifestyle.

All too often, there simply is next to no time or energy left for the extended family — especially since siblings and cousins often move to the far reaches of the country in pursuit of their careers. The concept of getting together with friends is also under gradual threat of disappearing.

It gets worse. Even spending time with their own kids increasingly becomes an illusion for Americans with their busy schedules. Parents often come home after the kids have gone to bed — and zonk out on weekends in front of the TV set out of sheer exhaustion.

On top of that, with the meager national allowance for vacations, U.S. families have precious little time to catch up with each other in extended summer vacations. With a standard annual vacation allowance of three weeks for the whole year, most families can be happy to spend as much as a week together to rest up.

Most Americans can only dream of having European-style vacation allotments of about six weeks per year. And, dismal as it sounds, about 40% of Americans are reported to be in daily contact with their offices during their vacation time.

Kids themselves have come under unsustainable pressure to perform. The sight of grammar-school children, at eight years of age, bent under oversized backpacks has become sadly familiar in U.S. cities and suburbs. One sometimes wonders whether there is a subconcious national effort underway to break the kids’ backs.

In addition, they are stuck at school past 3:30 pm, both because parents are not back from work yet — and because they need to learn more to stay abreast in a highly competitive environment.

To get “ahead,” they also get up to four hours of homework every night. Otherwise, they are told they will not get into good, better, best schools, colleges, universities, jobs…

Sadly, the prevailing pressure-cooking U.S. social model — at least in the big cities — is creating a generation of little learning machines short on parental contact and deprived of play and leisure — previously considered the essential parts of growing up.

With so much existential stress around the dinner table every night, it is no surprise that marriages in the United States are crumbling at ever faster rates. The divorce rate currently stands at 55%. Over the past three decades, U.S. divorce rates have risen by 200%. On a more anecdotal basis, one is less and less surprised over just who is getting divorced these days even while the kids are still young. And one can’t really blame people that much.

In 1994, 46% of U.S. households were two-income families. At present, this number is much higher. More than 60% of married women with young children now work outside of the home, and nearly 39% of these women have full-time jobs. While this trend lifts the U.S. standard of living, husband and wife often lose their margin for error in dealing with each other. Have Americans bought their high standard of living with too much pressure and work?

All of these trends were well entrenched before the terrorist attacks surfaced. The very comforts those terrorists sought to wipe out so heinously were purchased at a steep price by the American family, which had started to crumble as a result. The stock market, which miraculously built a cozy retirement nest-egg for every American, had plunged, shattering the sense of financial and existential security.

Another blow came from the labor market. Almost overnight, the number of Americans drawing unemployment benefits rocketed from record lows to its highest level in nearly two decades. And 10 years of runaway consumption left the average American family with $10,000 in consumer debt.

The airlines, at least, have Uncle Sam to look after them, who has already provided a $15 billion rescue package. The American people are less lucky. True, Washington may help by extending unemployment benefits and giving another tax break. But can politicians mend the social model?