Don't Slave Your Life Away: Why America Should Embrace a 4-Day Work Week
The following is an excerpt from Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy by Bill Ivey.
The Perpetual Workday
Jill Andresky Fraser’s book White-Collar Sweatshop details the movement of factory floor, scientific-management-style techniques into the office. Overall real wages scarcely budged in the 1990s, and earnings for college-educated workers actually declined by more than 6 percent. We might surmise that the lack of salary increases were offset, in part, by noncash benefits, but these too were extracted from the compensation package. “Lunch hour? An anachronism. Commuting time? A good chance to return phone calls. Sleep? Never mind if you were up until 2am on the phone with a client across the globe. Be at the office at eight.
"These days, workers are expected to be on call 24/7—24 hours per day, seven days per week,” writes Fraser. Seen in this light, innovations like flex time or working from home are in fact strategies to bring new sorts of workers—think women—into the job market and to subject them to a new set of (frequently electronic) rules and controls.
Think about it. Fifteen years ago, would you have taken a job if you had to be available every day, respond to messages from your boss late at night, and maintain contact with the office while on vacation? You would probably have taken a pass. But today just about any job, especially the good ones, exhibit precisely this oppressive 24/7 character.
It’s a corrosive double whammy: At the same time as technology has redefined labor by converting craft occupations into assembly line piecework, new gadgets have allowed our less inviting piecework tasks to follow us home, invading our bedrooms, filling family time, distracting us on holiday. This change in the character of work took place very quickly. As technology critic Jaron Lanier observed, “It’s as if you kneel to plant the seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it swallows your whole village before you can even rise to your feet.”
Americans are suckers for new technologies. We cheerfully purchased the Sony Walkman (how quickly we forget!) and embraced digital cameras, cell phones, plasma TVs, smart phones, and now iPads. Just as we’ve consumed high-tech gadgets at home, we welcome electronic devices in the workplace; won’t they save precious time by making us more efficient? Our enthusiasm for innovative machines obscures the truth that all they do is bind us more tightly to our jobs while forcing us to work longer hours.
For centuries, work has been the arena of accomplishment in which learning and insight combined skills of mind and hand to solve problems, bringing forward something useful, beautiful, or both. Back when women entered the workforce in big numbers at every level, it seemed the importance of labor as a source of meaning and identity only increased. But the financial collapse of 2008 produced profound, perhaps lasting, changes in American labor markets. As Clive Crook argues, there exists a real “likelihood that lengthening spells of unemployment [will] become self-perpetuating, as skills erode or grow irrelevant.” State governments are attempting to balance budgets by sacking teachers, nurses, and police officers, and underwater mortgages have made it impossible for millions of workers to sell houses to relocate in search of new jobs. As Tyler Cowen writes, “We need to be prepared for the possibility that the growth slowdown could continue once the immediate recession is over.”
We know that real wages have been flat for more than two decades. Technology-enabled productivity increased, but that hasn’t helped workers. Productivity per person-hour increased by 5 percent between 2009 and 2010—postrecession—but productivity went up because the number of hours worked went down. So for the past 10 years, workers substituted charge cards and home equity loans for stagnant wages to maintain what seemed to be a middle-class lifestyle. That era of self-delusion is over and has been replaced by doubt, disappointment, pessimism, and a deep suspicion of financial and political power. In an unprecedented development, millions of newly minted college graduates are moving directly from the classroom to the unemployment lines and sometimes to the encampments of Occupy Wall Street. American workers now compete in the much-touted global market; it is a distinct irony that not Marxists but corporate leaders urge the workers of the world to unite in a drive toward efficiency—efficiency that can be best defined as low wages.