Former U.S. labor secretary takes the slow lane

Former U.S. labor secretary takes the slow lane

It was the best job he had ever had and that, says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, was the problem. His addiction to work was so severe that he never saw his family.

One night, Reich phoned home to say he would miss his sons' bedtime for the sixth time that week. His youngest son, Sam, was understanding but insisted on being awakened when he got home - no matter what time it was - so he would know his father was actually in the house.

"Something in me snapped and I knew that I had to quit," Reich said in an interview from his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. "It was a very difficult decision for me as I loved my job but I also love my family and I realized if I stayed as labor secretary then I would miss those precious teenage years."

Reich's personal journey to find balance between work and family and his fascination with the Internet-driven economy resulted in his latest book, "The Future of Success," released this month.

The book analyzes the wildly competitive New Economy and its impact on society. It carries a personal price tag, Reich explains: more frenzied lives, less security, a loss of time and energy for family, friendship, community and self.

After he resigned in 1996, Reich was flooded with mail. Much of it was sympathetic but some accused him of sending out the wrong signal to the work force for which he had set policy.

Women on the fast track, in particular, were annoyed, saying his message to millions of people juggling work and family was that it could not be done.

"Some people also said it was easy for me to get another job which does not demand as much time but pays about as well but that they were struggling to make ends meet," he said.


Reich believes it is possible to find a balance but stresses people must leave enough time and energy for other parts of their lives apart from work.

"Part of the answer has to do with personal decisions, understanding better what tradeoffs you are making, being self-conscious and self-aware of them and managing your time better and simplifying life. Most people don't need nearly all the stuff they buy," he said.

Reich offers some practical tips in his book, suggesting, for example, that people keep a written daily log, then decide what is important to them and what they can cut out.

"People should find whatever balance they want, but when work becomes so dominant in people's lives and they have nothing outside of work that is meaningful to them, their spirit shrivels. They may not even know it," Reich said.

The average couple with children is putting in eight weeks more work per year than 10 years ago, he says, which predictably puts greater pressure on them.

"We are working more hours than the notoriously industrious Japanese and the hours are mounting very rapidly. It's not just hours on the job but hours on the computer at home, travel hours, commuting hours, working via mobile phones," he said. "It's the intrusiveness of work. We have reached the point where work is eating up huge portions of our lives."

Reich says the nation is worker harder largely because of the Internet-driven New Economy, whose technological advances offer people a "terrific new deal" and more choices than ever.

"Part of that is making hay while the sun shines. Almost no one has steady income now. People are temps and freelancers and even those who are full-time workers get more of their income from bonuses, overtime or some other dimension."

Some companies offer "family-friendly policies," but Reich said few professional employees took advantage of these. There was a fear, he said, that if they job-shared or took time off to be with family they would slip off the fast track.

People at both the high and low end of the earnings scale are affected, he says. "If you are on the lower end you have to work harder to make ends meet but if on the higher end you are making sacrifices for every decision not to work harder."

Soon after giving up his high-powered job, Reich promised to attend a sporting event important to his son and was looking forward to the game until a lucrative contract came his way that clashed with his son's milestone event.

"Suddenly the game became costly," he said, adding that he eventually turned down the contract and went to the game.

Another element of the New Economy is a lack of loyalty from all sides. "Loyalty is all but dead. Companies have been laying off workers and treating employees cavalierly. Employees have also been quite disloyal and if a better job comes along they leave. They feel nothing about getting the best deal they can and leaving a current employer in the lurch," he said.

ADJUSTING FROM FAST TRACK MAY BE DIFFICULT"In a society we have choices and we don't have to have a culture of such quick and easy shifting of loyalty and fast track and slow track, of income streams that are so uncertain from one year to the next that we have to make hay while the sun shines."

Reich concedes he had difficulty adjusting from being an important Cabinet member to the slower pace of being a professor at Brandeis University and taking on various writing projects.

"When you pull the plug, everything ends. Both the pressure and the excitement has gone and that adjustment was somewhat difficult. Certainly the first six months was disorienting. It's like getting the bends when you come up from the deep."

Reich had expected his sons to be delighted at having him home and thought all he would have to do was suggest seeing a movie or going to a game and they would jump at the chance.

"In fact, teenagers have their own lives, and I was a little chagrined to discover that sometimes they had their own plans, which did not include me at all. But I didn't have a moment regretting leaving. I knew I had made the right decision."

His two sons will soon be out of their home trying to find balance in their own lives, and Reich says he might consider returning to the fast track after they go. But for now he is enjoying life, doing a book tour, focusing on his academic work and even writing a play that has nothing to do with economics.

"I'm certainly not retired and have a lot of different projects going, But I have more control over my life."

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