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.

Fighting For a Four-Hour Workday

It used to be common sense that advances in technology would bring more leisure time. “If every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful,” Benjamin Franklin assumed, “that labor would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Science fiction has tended to consider a future with shorter hours to be all but an axiom. Edward Bellamy’s 1888 best seller Looking Backward describes a year 2000 in which people do their jobs for about four to eight hours, with less attractive tasks requiring less time. In the universe of Star Trek, work is done for personal development, not material necessity. In Wall-E, robots do everything, and humans have become inert blobs lying on levitating sofas.

During the heat of the fight for the eight-hour day in the 1930s, the Industrial Workers of the World were already making cartoon handbills for what they considered the next great horizon: a four-hour day, a four-day week, and a wage people can live on. “Why not?” the IWW propaganda asked.

It’s a good question. A four-hour workday with a livable wage could solve a lot of our most nagging problems. If everyone worked fewer hours, for instance, there would be more jobs for the unemployed to fill. The economy wouldn’t be able to produce quite as much, which means it wouldn’t be able to pollute as much, either; rich countries where people work fewer hours tend to have lower carbon footprints. Less work would leave plenty of time for family and for child care, ending the agony over “work-life balance.” Gone would be the plague of overwork, which increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa, has devoted his career to undoing the “nationwide amnesia” about what used to constitute the American dream of increasing leisure—the Puritans’ beloved Sabbath, the freedom to ramble that Walt Whitman called “higher progress,” the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Hunnicutt’s latest book, Free Time, traces how this dream went from being thought of as a technological inevitability, to becoming the chief demand in a century of labor struggles, to disappearing in the present dystopia where work threatens to invade every hour of our lives.

—  Nathan SchneiderWho Stole the Four-Hour Workday?

Working Hours in Developed Countries: 1990 and 2012

Nowadays, most people feel that they’re working harder and longer than ever — and with a lot less to show for it. There’s certainly a degree of truth to this, as real wages and incomes have remained stagnant despite rising productivity.

But according to research by the OECD, an association comprising most of the world’s richest nations, average working hours have actually declined for most developed economies over the last two decades, as the following graph from The Economist shows:

Understandably, many people might be skeptical of this finding, given what we’ve all seen and experienced in this miserable economy: people having to pull in two jobs or work overtime just to barely scrape by, all the while contending with a greater workload and less (if any) compensation. Indeed, The Economist article also notes some caveats:

The Greeks are some of the most hardworking in the OECD, putting in over 2,000 hours a year on average. Germans, on the other hand, are comparative slackers, working about 1,400 hours each year. But German productivity is about 70% higher.

One important question concerns whether appetite for work actually diminishes as people earn more. There are countervailing effects. On the one hand, a higher wage raises the opportunity cost of leisure time and should lead people to work more. On the other hand, a higher income should lead a worker to consume more of the stuff he or she enjoys, which presumably includes leisure.

In other words, how much you work is a separate matter from how hard your work, even the two are often seen as one in the same. Of course, working longer hours still means you’re spending less time doing leisurely things; conversely, someone who works hard may nonetheless end up with more time for themselves to enjoy (though some word argue that you may also become too burned out to actually enjoy most of that extra free time). But wait, there’s more:

Some research shows that higher pay does not, on net, lead workers to do more. Rather, they may work less. A famous study by Colin Camerer and colleagues, which looked at taxi drivers, reached a controversial conclusion. The authors suggested that taxi drivers had a daily income “target”, and that:

“When wages are high, drivers will reach their target more quickly and quit early; on low-wage days they will drive longer hours to reach the target.”

This may very well explain why so many companies seem intent on paying their workers as little as possible, despite nonetheless demanding more from them. Of course, there’s also research suggesting that higher pay boosts productivity — and corporate profits — by leading workers to be more invested in their jobs. This improves morale, reduces turnover, and minimizes the likelihood of cutting corners or stealing from the company. Basically, if people are treated better, they’ll work better.

Anyway, there’s more to how we look at work:

Alternatively, the graph above might suggest that people who work fewer hours are more productive. This idea is not new. Adam Smith reckoned that

“[T]he man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of works.”

There are aberrations, of course. Americans are relatively productive and work relatively long hours. And within the American labour force hours worked among the rich have risen while those of the poor have fallen. But a paper released yesterday by the New Zealand Productivity Commission showed that even if you work more hours, you do not necessarily work better. The paper made envious comparisons between Kiwis and Australians—the latter group has more efficient workers.

Pretty complex stuff, to say the least. Clearly, there’s more to take into account than just how hard you work, for how long, and for what amount of compensation. What is certain is that humans value their free time as well as the material and monetary means to use it. I suspect that if you pay people better and give them fewer hours, they’ll generally work harder.

Otherwise, the next best thing might be to just make their work experience more pleasant; too many companies have skimped on perks that used to make our jobs a little more enjoyable. Company trips and parties have been cut, break times shortened, schedules less reliable and flexible — for too many people, work is simply too miserable. If we’re going to spend so much of our waking life working, it should at least be fulfilling, enjoyable, or at the very least well-paying. Indeed, as the great Bertrand Russell observed many decades ago:

So maybe we should be more self-critical about how much we work. Working less may make us more productive. And, as Russell argued, working less will guarantee “happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia”.

Speaking from experience, I can certainly attest to my quality of life improving since getting a job that treats me better and compensates me more. Frankly, even when I was making less money working a part-time job before that, I still enjoyed my life more given the greater leisure time I had. What about you guys? What are your thoughts and concerns?

What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work

This great TED Talk by researcher Dan Ariely explores a topic that is no doubt dear to all our hearts: how can we better enjoy the work we do, whether its part of a paying job or free time? What motivates us to drudge on with activities that constitute a huge chunk of our time awake? It’s a pretty interesting video that challenges a lot of assumptions, although some might find the conclusion to be rather intuitive.

Let me know what you think in the comments section below.



Bad Job Leads to Bad Health

Science pretty much confirms what most of us know by experience: working at a stressful, un-fulfilling job can be pretty bad for you. ScienceDaily reports:

ScienceDaily (Mar. 14, 2011) — The impact on mental health of a badly paid, poorly supported, or short term job can be as harmful as no job at all, indicates research published online in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

But after taking account of a range of factors with the potential to influence the results, such as educational attainment and marital status, the mental health of those who were jobless was comparable to, or often better than, that of people in work, but in poor quality jobs.

Those in the poorest quality jobs experienced the sharpest decline in mental health over time. There was a direct linear association between the number of unfavourable working conditions experienced and mental health, with each additional adverse condition lowering the mental health score.

And the health benefits of finding a job after a period of worklessness depended on the quality of the post, the findings showed. Job quality predicted mental health.

Getting a high quality job after being unemployed improved mental health by an average of 3 points, but getting a poor quality job was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed, showing up as a loss of 5.6 points.

Paid work confers several benefits, including a defined social role and purpose, friendships, and structured time. But jobs which afford little control, are very demanding, and provide little support and reward, are not good for health, say the authors.

“Work first policies are based on the notion that any job is better than none as work promotes economic as well as personal wellbeing,” comment the authors. “Psychosocial job quality is a pivotal factor that needs to be considered in the design and delivery of employment and welfare policy,” they conclude.

We’ll likely need more studies to confirm this, but I think it makes a lot of sense. Human beings need something more than just getting by: the need purposes, positive reinforcement, etc. It’s harder to get that from jobs that mistreat you.