Culture

Americans Work Too Much and Have Too Little Time for Play: Here's How to Slow Down 'The Great Speed-Up'

We're being asked to do more in less time, and with less help. Here's a simple plan to begin to take back our lives.

Feeling overwhelmed? If you're like many Americans, the answer is probably a beleaguered yes. People across the country report that they are working harder than ever, checking their email on weekends and vacations, putting in more hours at the office, and juggling multitasks just to keep up. While the frenzied pace seems to have hit information workers particularly hard, employees throughout the economy (warehouse workers, hotel housekeepers, teachers) say they are being asked to do more, in less time, with fewer co-workers to help them.

Welcome to "The Great Speedup." That's what Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, who edit Mother Jones, dub the phenomenon in the current issue of their magazine. Just like when factory owners used to speed up the pace of the assembly line to fill an order, today's companies are trying to wring more productivity from workers year after year, even as wages for most remain flat. Bauerlein and Jeffery write: "Just counting work that's on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), Americans now work an average of 122 hours per year more than Brits and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans."

Judging from the buzz in the blogosphere, the article has struck a chord with many (especially the hyper-wired cognoscenti who are so plugged in they notice a new MoJo story as soon as it's posted). The article makes me think of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique: Here, suddenly, is a clear description of a malaise that millions have felt but had no name for. The idea of the Great Speedup is so compelling because it dissects a problem hiding in plain sight. It's a relief to realize that all of us, worked to the bone, are not alone.

I was thinking about all this the other day as I took my time to make a sandwich before heading off to the three-acre organic fruit and vegetable garden where I volunteer. In the middle of the week. On a Wednesday.

Although I have certainly felt the time-crunch anxiety so many people complain of, at that moment -- standing in my kitchen at midday -- it seemed that I had all the time in the world. The antidote to the Great Speedup appeared obvious. Don't want to work so hard? OK, then: Work less.

I know that doesn't sound all that helpful (and more than a little tautological), but bear with me. Because here's the thing: From scrappy little nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies, there are examples out there of how to have a fulfilling career while working fewer hours. If you really want to slow down, the first thing you have to do is ask for it.

My personal experience is illustrative (to a point). I work as an editor at a quarterly environmental magazine. It's a great job, and I'm psyched to have it, but I also have other passions -- foremost among them, organic farming. So when I was offered the job, I said I could only accept the position if I could take off two afternoons a week to go work in the garden. At first, my future boss was leery of the idea. He wanted a full-time editor, not someone who was going to disappear a couple of days to play in the dirt. But I assured him I could do the job at 75 percent time and he relented -- on the condition that the time split would be re-evaluated after a six-month probationary period. More than four years later, the arrangement is still in place: I go to the magazine Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and spent Wednesday and Friday afternoons building compost and digging vegetable beds.

That's a nice story, you may be saying, but not everyone works at lefty nonprofits with accommodating managers. Fair enough. So let's talk about my friend Kom, a buddy from the farm.

Kom recently landed a job at a major Silicon Valley brand. (Since he only started the job last week, I'm going to keep the firm anonymous; let's just say you likely use the company's products daily.) During the interview process, Kom said he would take the position so long as he could take off Wednesdays to help with our farm's harvest. The interviewers were, naturally, surprised by the request.

"I didn't think I would get the job because of that," Kom told me. "The interview went on for two and a half hours." But within a few days they offered Kom the position -- with Wednesdays off, as he had asked.

The anecdote is important because of the size and importance of the employer. Here's a company that people are dying to work for. Typically the firm is the one with the clout to write the terms of employment. But, as Kom's case shows, if you have the courage to ask to work less, you might be surprised by the answer.

I asked Kom if he thought other people could, or should, ask their employers for shorter, more flexible schedules. "I think they should, I really do," he said. "I don't know. I think it's a matter of values. You have to decide how you value experiences."

The Money Problem

I don't want to sound cavalier about the idea of working less -- especially since that means earning less money. The decision to put in fewer hours at the office involves a real financial sacrifice, and that's a difficult thing for many families to imagine these days. Over the last four years I've surrendered about $60,000 in salary. I still live pretty comfortably, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't notice the missing money. I don't put as much as I should into my retirement account. I don't spend as freely on some things that I really want to have, like, say, furniture and clothing. I have to force myself to keep my material desires modest.

And that can be difficult. Keeping your material wants in check is especially hard in a society in which we are told -- constantly, relentlessly -- that stuff equals success and possessions mean happiness. They don't of course. As Bill McKibben pointed out in his book Deep Economy, GDP has been rising more or less steadily in the United States since the end of World War II. But Americans' satisfaction with their lives -- their happiness -- leveled off in the 1950s. Since then, we've been working harder and longer so we can purchase bigger things: bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger Big Gulps. The result, as the Great Speedup reveals, is bigger stress.

Over at Grist, Dave Roberts, in his own personal response to Bauerlein and Jeffery, suggests that one way to counteract the speedup is to embrace what he calls the "medium chill." Roberts writes: "The medium chill involves what economists call satisficing: abandoning the quest for the ideal in favor of the good-enough. It means stepping off the aspirational treadmill, foregoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences."

The key point comes at the end there: How many possessions are you willing to sacrifice for more experiences? If you want to get all Marxist about it, capitalism requires that you sell your time for money. You go to the office 9 to 5 (or 9 to 7, as the case may be), and in exchange your employer pays your salary or wage. Time really is money. In choosing to work less than 40 hours a week in an office, Kom and I have made the decision that we would prefer to be time rich even if that means being somewhat cash poor. It means that we're loaded when it comes to controlling our own schedules.

Now, in all fairness, asking your employer if you can work less is going to be a harder sell for people who earn an hourly wage than it is for salaried employees. Flexible, less-than-full time schedules are probably an easier ask for people in the information sector (where the work can be done remotely, and at any time of the day) than for workers in, say, the construction trades, the service industry or manufacturing. But it's not impossible, or unheard of. Just take a look at the history of the W.K. Kellogg Company.

In 1930, during the depths of the Great Depression, the cereal giant based in Battle Creek, Michigan decided to move most of its 1,500 employees from a 40-hour work week to a 30-hour schedule. In doing so, the company was able to hire an additional 300 people and stem the tide of unemployment in Central Michigan. At the end of World War II, Kellogg's managers floated the idea of returning to a 40-hour week. The employees pushed back. A 1946 survey of Kellogg's workers found that 77 percent of men and 87 percent of women preferred the 30-hour week even if it meant lower wages. The six-hour day was so popular that it remained in effect in some Kellogg's departments until 1985.

One of the most interesting things about the Kellogg's experience is that -- contrary to what the management gurus would have you think -- the shorter week increased worker productivity. As W.K. Kellogg himself said at the time: "The efficiency and morale of our employees is [sic] so increased, the accident and insurance rates are so improved, and the unit cost of production is so lowered that we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight."

How was this possible? Perhaps because the Kellogg's workers had more time to re-charge, to express their creativity, to feel like they were part of a community -- and that gave them more energy to bring to their jobs. A reporter for a national business magazine who went to investigate the scene in Battle Creek found "a lot of gardening and community beautification, athletics and hobbies ... libraries well patronized and the mental background of these fortunate workers ... becoming richer." Rather than feeling overstretched and tired, the Kellogg's employees felt more fulfilled -- which made them better workers.

I would guess that some similar calculation went through the heads of people who hired my friend Kom. The company where he now works prides itself on being home to creative people. It wants to attract visionaries. As Kom remembered the interview, "They were talking about my time at Alemany Farm and they were really interested. It seemed they were more interested in me personally than my abilities in regard to the position. I guess I must have passed all the software tests they gave me, and after that they wanted to know about me."

Yes, finding a way to work less will take some courage on the part of individual employees to ask -- nay, demand -- shorter work weeks. It will also take some courage on the part of corporations. They will have to see, as the Kellogg's experience proved, that giving employees a little space to breathe will likely result in a workforce that is more creative, more innovative and more energetic.

Another key lesson of the Kellogg's story is how a shorter workweek can contribute to more overall employment. The logic is pretty simple: If all of us who have jobs worked less, then more of us without jobs could have some work. Free time would increase, unemployment would go decrease, everyone would be better off. A labor movement fantasy, you say? It doesn't have to be.

Creative managers and courageous companies can do a lot to help slow down the speedup. Fundamentally, though, we also need a change in government policy. We're being driven so hard in part because there are few federal laws that guarantee downtime. The US is one of just five countries that doesn't mandate paid maternity leave (not to mention paternity leave); one of just eight countries that doesn't guarantee a paid vacation; and one of only 15 countries that doesn't require some time off during each work week. If we're going to take back our time, that has to change.

As we experiment with ways to slow down, reclaim some of our time and work less, I'm sure people will find the rewards worth far more than the lost wages. We'll have more chances to do the things we really love -- whether that means knitting, or dirt bike riding, or playing softball, or spending time with the kids. I think you know what I'm talking about: It's called living.

Jason Mark splits his time between Earth Island Journal and San Francisco's Alemany Farm. Follow his lazy twitter updates: @writerfarmer.
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