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America Has Forgotten That We Don't Have Freedom If We Don't Have Free Time

The debate over Obamacare and voluntary work reduction raises intriguing questions.

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What exactly is human progress? If progress is the growth of opportunities, then we should welcome developments that give us more options in how we spend our time and structure our lives. But when we get trapped in the mindset of eternal scarcity and laboring until our last breath, we stop imagining that there could be any path in front of us except more and more work.

A recent report on Obamacare by the CBO found that the law will nudge workers to work less. Why? Because if you don’t have to take a full-time job just to get coverage, then maybe you won’t. Conservatives are interpreting the report to mean that Obamacare is a “job killer.” But they’re deliberately missing the fact that the work reduction in this case is voluntary.

 “The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply,” says the report.

Assuming the CBO is correct about this voluntary reduction, what’s so bad about it? Why would anyone be up in arms about the idea of a person choosing, of her own free will, to work less?

If you’re a 60-year-old retail worker with diabetes, you’ve had to work a full-time job in order to get health insurance coverage. Under Obamacare, your pre-existing condition won’t prevent you from getting insured, so you may choose to cut back your hours or retire early. Facing job insecurity and layoffs, older workers have often been forced to taking McJobs just to be able to go to the doctor, when they could be doing much more interesting and productive things with their time, like teaching their grandchildren to read or engaging in civic activities.

Our health insurance system has locked many people into full-time jobs that aren’t necessarily the best use of their human potential. Entrepreneurs have put off trying out new business ideas because they fear losing insurance. Parents of newborns and people taking care of elderly parents can’t take time to care for their family because insurance is tied to full-time employment. 

Democrats argue that getting away from job-lock is a good thing and that the economy could actually get a boost if people have the freedom to get out of jobs they really don’t want. That’s probably true, though a single-payer system that makes healthcare a public good rather than a private cost would be a much better solution to job-lock than Obamacare.

The debate about voluntary work reduction points to some deeper philosophical questions about the nature of work and what kind of society we want to live in. To explore these, we need to get beyond the political spin of both parties.

Maybe the real question is, why don’t we have more choices about how and when we work, and what kind of system would provide them?

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that by 2030, advanced societies would grow rich enough that leisure time would characterize national lifestyles rather than work. That hasn’t worked out so well: Americans have, in fact, had no increase in leisure time since the Great Depression.

In her 1991 book The Overworked American, economist Juliet Schor found that Americans were working a month longer per year in 1991 than they had in the mid-1970s. Her updated research shows that today, we work five whole weeks longer than we did in 1973. Historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, author of Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, points out that at this rate, the 60-hour workweek could become the norm in a few years.