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Former U.S. labour secretary Robert Reich is a man on a mission, concerned about the social toll and the erosion of family life as more and more working North Americans find themselves trapped in a race for which there is no finish line.

“Americans are putting in more hours, even, than the notoriously industrious Japanese … and Canadians are not too far behind,” he says in an interview.

“It is very, very common for professionals to put in more than 50 hours a week, with young professionals in their 20s and 30s putting in 60 and 70 hour work weeks,” says Mr. Reich, 54.

Even those with the most exhilarating careers, the highest pay, the best prerequisites reach the point where they realize “ the route they are on has no stopping point.”

Mr. Reich’s new book, The Future of Success, flows from a deeply personal incident that led him to quit former president Bill Clinton’s cabinet in 1997.

He loved the heady excitement of the job, the 18-hour days that produced-among other initiatives-the Family and Medical Leave Act that enables U.S. workers to take time off for family emergencies. The work was seductive, highly rewarding – and left little time for his wife and his two teenaged sons.

“To this day, I can’t explain precisely what happened to me at that moment. Yet, suddenly I knew I had to leave my job,” he writes.

The gap between the highest paid and the lowest paid is growing, he says. Those at the bottom are working full-tilt just to make ends meet, while those at the top of the income scale are driven by insecurity-who’s hot today might not be hot tomorrow. Even profitable corporations are downsizing and using more contract employees; entire divisions are wiped out overnight as businesses change course and chase the market.

In many fast-moving fields, opting to work part-time is often seen as an automatic career-breaker. This is why relatively few professionals, even in “family friendly” companies, feel they can scale back their working hours to spend more time at home, Mr. Reich says.

In the current hyper-competitive economy, individuals and corporations jump off the treadmill at their peril, Mr. Reich says. The situation requires a public discourse about what can be done on a national scale to curb the excesses of the New Economy without compromising its benefits – “ in other words, create a better social balance.”

His sons, he says, were busy with their own lives when he finally carved out more time to spend with them, but they seem to appreciate having him around. One dreams of becoming an actor, he says, and the other wants to be a labour organizer – “ there will be plenty for that one to do.”

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