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How Less Work for Everybody Could Solve a Lot of Our Economic Turbulence and Make Life More Pleasant

"Job creation" isn't the only answer.

Signs on May Day represent a missed media story.
Photo Credit: Sarah Seltzer


"Get a job!" This jeer was perhaps the most frequent directed at Occupy protesters last year, and it was usually either met by "I can't! That's why I'm here" or "I'm already working two." Embedded in this ever-common taunt of protesters or other counterculture figures is the belief that if you just work hard enough in America, you will succeed, that any time spent with nose away from grindstone is time wasted. Of course, the truth that Occupy, We Are the 99% Tumblr and the recession opened many (but not enough) eyes to is that it's not enough to work hard, get a degree, sacrifice and slave anymore because the system in fact is broken. 

America has a broad cultural emphasis on working hard as a goal in and of itself, and not on what working hard means. Earlier this week I wrote about five common-sense policy changes that would improve work-life balance for Americans. Mandating vacation time and family leave, embracing unions and improving childcare and workshare options would all make the major difference in our lives.

But what about an attitude adjustment to accompany those policies, or perhaps usher them in? How could workplaces and individuals reconfigure our mindset away from the most hours of work necessarily being the best toward a new paradigm? Can there be a healthy balance between productive, engaged and enthusiastic work for the most number of people, and the all-important leisure that enables and informs that work for all those people, too? I went on a search for the most recent progressive thinking on the issue of balance because I had a feeling there were ideas percolating beyond the basic need for family, medical and vacation time. 

American culture is informed by (forgive my ensuing broad generalizations about American religious history) an embrace of strong individuality and the infamous Puritan work ethic the earliest settlers brought over. In traditional Protestant thinking, hard work, frugality and diligence were ways of indicating membership in the "elect," or the saved. They left England because they found it debauched and corrupt, and established strict standards in the colonies. As a look back at Max Weber reminds us, this ethic is strongly tied to the American strand of capitalism. Ben Franklin, that pioneer of American thinking, wrote that "time is money," and urged Americans to spend their time earning at the dawn of our nation's existence. And as other countries have slowed down their hours in recent decades, we have sped up.

Fast-forward a few centuries, and you have the working class juggling jobs and buried in debt, as well as what New York Times guest columnist Tim Kreider calls " The Busy Trap," describing spot-on a phenomenon that is mostly attached to the modus operandi of the wealthy and socially elite (you know, the people who shape policy, mores and the financial landscape) in places like New York and Washington, DC.

They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications.

This faulty association of work with virtue hits the nail on the head. Why should we prioritize work above spending time with our families, or in the sunshine, or consuming art? With frequency, we glibly declare that at the end of our lives we will remember the latter group of activities more fondly than the former, but we seem reluctant to embrace that ethos in the here and now.

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