Restless Americans

To add insult to the injury of a stagnating economy, a report by economists Dan Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli found that Americans are not only working longer than before (partly because they are making less per hour), but are increasingly more likely to toil outside of work hours, particularly at night and on weekends. As The Atlantic reported:

They found that on a typical weeknight, a quarter of American workers did some kind of work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. That’s a lot, compared with about seven percent in France and the Netherlands. The U.K. is closest to the U.S. on this measure, where 19 percent work during night hours. On the weekends, one in three workers in the U.S. were on the job, compared to one in five in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

All of this adds up: According to the OECD, the U.S. leads the way in average annual work hours at 1,790—200 more hours than France, the Netherlands, and Denmark. That works out to about 35 hours a week, but a recent Gallup poll found the average to be much higher than that—at 47 hours weekly. And perhaps that’s not surprising, when 55 percent of college grads report that they get their sense of identity from their work.

As usual, technology serves as the double-edged sword: in many respects, it has made work a lot easier, not to mention all the new leisure activities (video games, Netflix, game apps, etc). But technology also allows work to be more accessible from home or even while on vacation, making it harder for employees to ignore emails, calls, and assignments — and easier for employers to expect, if not demand, such extra labor.

The consequences of such a work-centered culture are dire: strained social life, reduced sleep, frayed romantic and sexual activity, increased stress and, with all that, worsening mental and physical health. With the boundaries between work and leisure increasingly blurring, will jobs come to dominate our lives in the same way they once did during the early Industrial Era (when child labor, 12-hour workdays, and other such practices were the norm)?

If that is the case, then the solution is more or less the same now as it was then: more solidarity and activism among workers in all the relevant spheres — economic, public, and political. There is no sense in making people work more for less, especially when employers themselves stand to lose a lot in terms of reduced productivity, moral, and health among their employees.

We also need a serious assessment of how our business culture — and culture at large — operates counter-productively for human flourishing. It is becoming accepted practice, once again, for companies to squeeze out more and more from their beleaguered workers while simultaneously offering little to nothing to recompense (on the contrary, the trend is for ever-meager benefits, raises, and upward mobility).

More distressingly, it seems that far too many Americans consider this arrangement to be, at the very least, tolerable, if not acceptable. Ours is a work-obsessed culture that celebrates sacrificing leisure and even health for the sake of being productive at some task, even if it is for a company we hate and for benefits that do not make up for it. I can devote a whole other blog to assessing why it is that the U.S. seems especially enthusiastic about toiling at our own expense, but for now I ask that we at least question what it is we value in terms of quality of life; separating work from leisure is the very least we can do to that end.

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