The sturdy image of the stoic American worker always striving for an even fatter paycheck to keep up with the Joneses is being challenged by a growing number of people who want to work less - and are willing to give up some of their pay to do so.

"People say time is money. Well, I say less money is more time," explains Jim Quarto, a 27-year-old utility rate analyst for the state of Wisconsin who now shares his job and $14,500 salary with another worker. Quato wanted more time to "fool around with the tenor sax." The elderly man who shares Quarto's state job, William Scanlan, wanted more time off to care for his ailing parents. They each now work only two or three days a week.

Joe Lynde, a teacher in Wisconsin, would like to share his job with his wife, leaving them each with free time equally in the rearing of their infant son.

"Working full time, I spent most of my energy and most of my waking hours on the job," Lynde says, "and it's not even my top priority. My son is."

These workers are among thousands of advance troops in a movement that is changing the way Amercians perceive and handle their work time.

In St. Paul, Minn, an inner city bindery plant allows mothers who had benn on welfare to work Part-time in the Plant, while their children are in school, and then go home early in the afternoon.

In Bolivar, Tenn., a factory where rear-vision mirrors for cars are made In experimenting with a new work agreement that allows United Auto Workers union members to leave work each day as soon they have fulfilled their daily production quota, whenever that may be.

Flexitime, a work scheduling system in which employees work four 10-hour days each week - or very their starting and quitting times but do not reduct their hours - has also been gaining ground in both government agencies and private industry across the nation.The Carter administration is urging greater use of flexitime for federal employees, and the General Accounting Office estimates that about 1.5 million to 2.2 million federal employees already are on flexitime.

The rising demand for more flexibility in work hours has been spearheaded by the growing number of women trying to juggle conflicting job and family responsibilities. Women now account for 40 per cent of the total American work force - almost double their proportion of workers in 1940 - a change that labor market expert Eli Ginzberg has called "the single most outstanding phenomenon of our century."

This is not just a "women's issue." The movement to change work arrangements' has been joined by the elderly, the physically handicapped and younger workers, among others, who for various reasons have felt burdened or shut out by th 40-hour work week.

Their ranks include the welfare mothers who wants to help support herself, as well as the middle-class matron with a simple desire over the survival line: the auto mechanic who wants time on the side to try to make a go of a business of his own: the young professional woman who wants to have children, but also to maintain a continuous record of employment: the attorney who wants time to write a novel; and the novel; and the women with a master's degree who was paralyzed in an accident and needs weekly therapy.

In Madison, Wisc., under a special federally funded program, dozens of public employees like Jim Quarto are voluntarily sharing their full-time jobs and their salaries with people who had previously been excluded from the work force because they could not work full time.

While millions of people want work and can't get it, other led by working mothers, complain in growing numbers that they have more work than they want. Because of legal, institutional and cultural rigidities in most occupations, they have found until meeting a career job an all-or-nothing deal.

At a time when technology has spawned the tantalizing myth of a "leisure society," many people still find themselves trapped for much of their lives in the rat race. With more wives employed, "the modern married couple contributes an average of about 65 hours a week to earning a living - or as many as a Victorian couple at the turn of the century," according to one study.

In fact, in a survey of 82,000 full-time Wisconsin state employees, an unexpectedly high 6 per cent expressed an interest in reducing their working hours. "This means that some people are holding full-time jobs because that's their only option," said Carol Lobes, head of that state's job sharing progran.

Other surveys have indicated that workers often become happier and more productive when work hours are reduced or rearranged to meet the needs of employees.

[WORD ILLEGIBLE] advocates of greater flexibility in work hours feel their task is merely a matter of conscionsness raising. "In Maryland, we have a former state official who used to be opposed to the idea of part-time work," said state Del. Marilyn Goldwater (D-Montgomery County. "He had to leave because of high blood pressure. Now's he's back at work part-time. He has changed his attiture somewhat."

After noting a persistent theme in the complaints of constituents, "especially professionals," Goldwater introduced legislation, now Maryland law, that provides for 5 per cent of the 60,000 state jobs at all levels to be set aside for permanent part-time workers by 1981.

The Civil Service Commission has sending pamphlets to federal managers extolling the virtues of flexitime, part-time employment and job-sharing as ways to strength their equal employment opportunity record, increase productivity, relieve traffic congestion, reduce overtime costs, tardines, employees turnover and absenteeism, extend the agency's hours of service at the public, and generally "improve the quality of working life."

Congress is considering legislation that would set more precise requirements for increasing flexible work opportunities in government, as a model for the rest of the economy. And growing numbers of state and local governments are initiating experimental programs. Several public employees unions have supported such programs.

Voices of opposition, or indiference, to such arrangements - including much of organized labor - maintain that part-time or work-sharing programs are of little use of easing unemployment problems, could even contribute to them by ushering more people into the labor force, and will tend to depress the wages and rights of full-time workers. Some characterize the issue or alternative work schedules, in the words of one union spokesman, as "a vehicle for bored housewives and the academic elite."

On the contrary, says Rep. Midge Miller, of Wisconsin, "this is basic to life. Many women in our society are doomed to spend the last 20 or 30 years of their lives unemployed or under-employed.

"One reason that affirmative action hasn't been working," she added, "is that we'd offer jobs on conditions that women often couldn't meet.

The mother of nine children herself, Miller became interested in the subject because of her personal experience with the problem, she said. Along with Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, she has been active in pushing special programs for more flexible work arrangements. The state passed a bill last month to promote part time jobs.

The standard 40-hour work week "has been a sacred cow since the depression," Miller said. "Well, we have different problems now."