How Less Work for Everybody Could Solve a Lot of Our Economic Turbulence and Make Life More Pleasant
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.
On the other hand, Kreider's proposed solution (spend more time idling, daydreaming and hanging out) while indeed electable-seeming, is out of reach for most Americans. As Slate's J. Brian Lowder notes,
the pleasantly open schedule that he advocates is almost never possible without a healthy stack of family money or generous institutional grant. …Most of us need a stable income (hello, student loans), and moreover, the ongoing nature of assignments in many jobs means that as much as we might like to dedicate only morning hours to “the work,” we do, in fact, need to be connected for much of the day.
The fact that leisure is often only accessible to the privileged is exactly why policy changes are needed. Because if society's powerful continue to perpetuate the idea of being occupied with work as somehow being valuable, then they will do nothing to help shift the situation for the rest of the workforce, for those who have no choice but to be busy. Just this week David Brooks self-parodically declaredthat taking conference calls at Junior's piano lesson was working longer hours than are worked by those down the income scale who do real backbreaking work. Brooks is perpetuating the busyness-as-virtue myth and erroneously applying his bourgeois experience universally. If he thinks taking calls during Junior's piano lessons is worthy of bragging rights, why should he care that his kids' nanny or the nurse at the nearby hospital is working two jobs and has no time off in the summer?
That's why it's ultimately a positive that some among the privileged (like Kreider and Anne-Marie Slaughter, unlike Brooks) are responding to the call for more balance.
And certainly, there are other ways to improve work-life balance that go beyond everyone having a cabin in the woods. One is ending the policy of fixed or earned vacation days and going to an "honor system" with unlimited time off, a policy favored by a few startups. The idea is the system fosters loyalty, spreads vacation throughout the year, schedules "strategically" based on the ebb and flow of work, and hopefully staves off burnout, guilt and resentment that plagues American workers--who now more and more plan to skip vacations or call into the office while gone.
Is it any wonder then, that plenty of businesses like Accessibility Partners, IBM, and Netflix have sent their vacation policies packing? The concept unlimited time off hasn't reduced workplaces to chaotic anarchies. Instead, it's created more efficiency, at least according to Dharmesh Shah, cofounder and CTO of Hubspot.
...Rather than hoard days for times when they really need it, then scramble to take days at the end of the year (or fight for extra pay for time not taken), Shah says Hubspot's open, unlimited vacation policy makes all of these problems go away. “Employees take the vacation when they need it and we don't have a spike of vacations at specific points of time,” he explains.
This kind of attitude could be applied more broadly. At the Guardian, Dean Baker argues that in addition to spending on public works, the government can also encourage companies to divide work instead of laying off employees. He notes that austerity aside, these kinds of policies have truly helped Germany:
There is nothing natural about the length of the average work week or work year and there are, in fact, large variations across countries. The average worker in Germany and the Netherlands puts in 20% fewer hours in a year than the average worker in the United States. This means that if the US adopted Germany's work patterns tomorrow, it would immediately eliminate unemployment.
Of course, it is unrealistic to imagine such large changes occurring overnight, but governments can certainly attempt to encourage employers to shorten workweeks and increase vacation and other paid time-off. In fact, this is the real secret of Germany's post-crisis recovery. Germany's growth has been no better than growth in the United States since the start of the downturn, yet its unemployment rate has fallen by 2.0 percentage points – while unemployment in the United States has risen by almost 4.0 percentage points. The difference is that Germany encourages firms to reduce work hours rather than lay off workers.
These stories show that it's indeed hard to really separate policy from culture, but perhaps shifting the latter is part of the work radicals and reformers alike have failed to do. In Dissent Magazine,Mark Englerargues that by pushing for more jobs over a better balance between work and life, progressives have "ceded" the tempting ground of leisure and personal happiness to the very corporations that exploit workers. Citing ad campaigns that urge workers to take back their lunch hours, he asks, shouldn't this be the job of the left?
In past decades, and certainly since the most recent economic downturn, the demand from liberals—and even from those further to the left—has been for jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Rarely have progressives focused on demands like reducing work hours, lowering the retirement age, protecting and expanding vacation, and implementing job-sharing schemes—all of which might be better paths to full employment. The reason is simple: if everyone wasn’t forced to work so hard, there would be more work to go around.
Engler cites the work of Juliet Schor and the concept of a "plenitude" economyover a profit-driven one. It's the idea of a great slowdown to counter the Great-American speedup. But it can't happen without our help. We need a willingness to let go of the idea that every hour working is somehow more valuable than an hour of our own time. Work should not be the only conferrer of dignity and status. Essentially she posits that if we all worked four days a week, and spent the rest of our time nourishing ourselves, the environment and each other, we'd be "better equipped to weather the economic and climate storms that will be more likely in coming decades." She tells us we have no other choice:
"Ultimately a progressive economic vision is one in which our economic arrangements yield a sustaining planet, creative work and fair distribution. The business-as-usual economy is failing miserably on all those fronts."