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An editorial from

Scripps Howard News ServiceAmericans love to celebrate the moral and material benefits of work; we have never idealized the "gentleman of leisure." But on this Labor Day we should ponder a troubling new reality: Millions of us are working too hard.

The Harris poll has been asking people for years how much time they have available for leisure. Since 1973, the average answer has shrunk by more than one-third: from 26.2 hours per week to only 16.6 hours.

Even if all we care about is maximizing our material wealth, that is bad news. A high-tech economy ought to be growing mainly through increased output per man-hour, not through adding more man-hours. Our gross national product did just that from the end of World War II through the 1960s, expanding dramatically even while the average employee's work week kept shrinking.

But that shrinkage has long since ended. According to the Department of Labor, the average worker now spends slightly more time on the job every week than he did a decade ago. More important, millions of one-worker families have become two-worker families as wives have entered the paid labor force. Since the early 1970s we have grown richer mostly from working harder, not from working smarter.

The working mother, in fact, is the heroine - or martyr - of our current prosperity. In 1977, a disturbing 31 percent of women with infants less than one year old were working outside the home. By 1987, that figure (which does not include unwed or divorced mothers) had reached an appalling 52 percent.

These are mothers not of teenagers or even toddlers, but of infants at the earliest, most crucial stages of development. Many of them must be out working at this point in their lives only because they have to, not because they want to.

Last year, a Boston University study of employed mothers found that they were spending more than 80 hours a week on work, housekeeping and child care combined. The result: "decreased physical and emotional well-being as measured by depression, life satisfaction, health and energy levels" - not just for the women but for their husbands.

Americans are suffering an unprecedented conflict between two of our core ideals, work and family. Work is winning: Our tax system, for example, favors two-income over one-income families. More and more of us treat our careers as the central focus of meaning in our lives, commanding loyalties traditionally given to non-economic institutions.

If work can meet our enlarged expectations, today's careerism will make us better and happier. But it probably cannot.