How hard do executives really work today?

October 16, 2012, 2:24 PM UTC

FORTUNE — There’s a certain narrative circling the business world that modern white-collar types work harder than ever. Thanks to our smartphones, we’re always on call. Thanks to our zest for teamwork, we spend our days in meetings — and do our real work after hours. Certainly things must have been different 50-60 years ago. Then, we suppose, the Organization Man corporate structure meant streamlined decisions. Without email, people left work at work. Right?

Not really. According to a 1954 Fortune story titled “How hard do executives work?” executives have always thought they were working harder than anyone else in history. Intriguingly, 1950s sorts and our current crop of workers complain about very similar things.

In 1954, William H. Whyte Jr. (who later gained fame for writing The Organization Man) set out to study the modern executive’s workweek. He and his team interviewed and compiled questionnaires from 221 “management men.” With the post-war rise of labor saving devices, broad prosperity, and confiscatory tax rates on higher incomes, the smart money assumed that workweeks would become shorter.

If so, this assumption had yet to influence these 1950s high-flyers. “Executives are working as hard as they ever did,” Whyte wrote. “It is difficult to see how they could possibly work harder.” Indeed, “For the corporation man the balanced life is as elusive as ever, possibly more so.”

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The normal workweek these executives described doesn’t seem too grueling. “In most places the average executive office week runs between forty-five and forty-eight hours,” Whyte wrote. “Most executives arrive at the office between 8:00 and 9:00 A.M. and leave about 5:30 or 6:00 P.M.” The problem was that this was only just past the “halfway mark,” Whyte noted, for a serious executive. “On the average he will work four nights out of five. One night he will be booked for business entertaining — more, probably if he’s a president. Another night he will probably spend at the office, or in a lengthy conference somewhere else. On two other nights he goes home, not to a sanctuary so much as to a branch office. Only a minority of executives have equipped their dens with dictating machines and calculators and such, but the majority devote at least two nights a week to business reading.”

As for constant contact, it turns out that you don’t need a smartphone to stay on all the time. Any phone will do. “Many executives simply cannot resist [the phone],” Whyte wrote — even if it’s the family landline. He quotes an Atlanta executive claiming, “I do a lot of spot checking by phone from home…I’d rather do that at night than in the day time. I have more time, and besides, most people have their guard down then.”

A Chicago executive reported that sometimes dialing in from the home line was “not so good…particularly when you’ve won a battle with the kids as to which television program to turn on and then they have to sit and watch your program while you talk business” — a reasonable sacrifice in a world where, without DVR, if you missed a program you missed it until the network deigned to do a rerun. “But on the whole,” the executive confessed, “I don’t really mind it.”

One reason executives took work home? The same reason modern workers do: it’s beastly hard to get anything done at the office. “Now that ‘committee management’ has become so much the rule, the average executive spends roughly six of his eight office hours talking with other executives in meetings and conferences,” Whyte wrote. “The other two hours are not spent in solitary contemplation; they are no more than the sum of a few minutes here and there between meetings and the ringing of the telephone. The executive, as one puts it, is never alone. Never physically at any rate. In many instances the team play has grown so frenetic that executives look on the office day as something of an interruption in their actual work. This not only explains the amount of after-hours work, it also explains the tendency of many executives to get to work in the morning earlier than anyone else.”

Whyte quotes one executive complaining that “Honestly, in one hour when nobody’s around I can get as much work done, real work, as I can during the rest of the day.”

Whyte tallied all this up and declared the workweek to be “all in all, some fifty-seven to sixty hours. And this evidently is a minimum; come convention time, a trip, a company emergency, and the week can easily go to seventy or eighty hours.”

In other words, up and comers have always complained about extreme jobs. “Executives questioned by FORTUNE were unanimous that their superiors approved highly of the fifty-five hour week and liked the sixty-hour week even better,” Whyte wrote.

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Of course, just as with modern workers, there’s reason to believe that executives from prior generations were overestimating their workweeks. Starting in the 1960s, every 10 years or so, as part of a massive survey known as the Americans’ Use of Time Project, researchers compared time diaries subjects kept to their estimated workweeks. In 1965, people who believed they were working 65-74 hours per week turned out to be working 57.6 hours; people who believed they were working 55-59 hours (which Whyte pegged as a normal week) were in fact working 42.5 hours. The University of Maryland’s John Robinson, who directed the Americans’ Use of Time project, provided numbers for 2006-2007, which found that people who estimated their workweeks at 50-59 hours were actually working 47.3 hours. People who claimed to be working 70-plus hours were working 58.8.

Overestimating workweeks is a time-honored tradition.

Why such an obsession with proclaiming long hours? Probably for the same reasons that Whyte listed to explain why his executives worked so hard: ambition, conformity, and drawing one’s personal identity from work. Some people in 1954 were convinced things had to change; people couldn’t possibly work this hard forever. Whyte was more sanguine: “Executives still will talk of being more sensible, of getting around to those books, of cutting out this ridiculous night work — and they will keep on doing just what they have been doing,” he wrote. After all, “There is too much work to be done.”