Work Mania

W.J. Astore

A good friend sent me Miya Tokumitsu’s recent article, “The United States of Work: Employers exercise vast control over our lives, even when we’re not on the job. How did our bosses gain power that the government itself doesn’t hold?” One answer: Americans have been sold on the idea of work as fulfilling and even ennobling, and indeed the more work the better.  Yet if work is so wonderful, why do we pay some people only $7.25 an hour (the minimum wage)?  That’s less than $15K a year if you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks.  Try living on that.  Work is so “great” in America that some people work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time for leisure or for family.

I remember when the “future” (which is now) was sold as a time when mechanization and robots and efficiency would grant us much more leisure time.  The idea was that new machinery and methods would curtail work.  That most people would work 25-30 hours a week at better jobs involving less drudgery, leaving them lots of time to raise families and otherwise to enjoy life away from the tedium and regimentation of the workplace.

It’s not so easy keeping up with our machine-driven mania for work

But the future isn’t what it used to be.  There are many reasons for this.  Americans often consume too much, i.e. they keep working to keep up with the Joneses.  Companies want higher and higher profits, driving them to squeeze more and more out of fewer and fewer workers.  And work in the USA isn’t just about work.  It’s often directly connected to health care, life insurance, and other benefits.  If you choose (or are told) to work part-time, you may lose your employer-provided health insurance.  If you’re fired, you lose your health benefits along with your salary and perhaps as well your sense of worth.

So much of our lives, especially in the USA, is tied to work.  After “What’s your name,” the next question most commonly asked of new acquaintances is, “What do you do?  Where do you work?” People’s sense of identity, their sense of worth, is often tied to their job, another big reason why losing one’s job is among the most stressful events in a person’s life.

And now work in America is often 24/7/365 since nearly everyone has electronic leashes, the Smart phones and so on, meaning the boss can always contact you.  And if you choose to unplug, maybe the boss will find someone else to take your place.  France recently passed a law to protect employees who choose to “unplug” after work and on weekends.  No such law in the USA, of course.

From my days in the military, I recall how so many officers put on a great show of looking busy.  “I have 276 emails to answer.”  “I’m wrestling alligators.”  “So busy — need to come up for air.”  When did being swamped by work become a sign of success?  In my view, the more efficient you are, the less grinding work you should need to do.  (Of course, many jobs are all about grinding work: as my dad used to say, the more physically grueling the job, the less he usually got paid.)

Work mania has many pitfalls.  Exhaustion leads to mistakes.  Broken health, either physical or mental.  Estrangement from family and the natural world.  I wonder, for example, whether people are dismissive of global warming and other environmental issues simply because they spend no time outdoors.  They’re always working, or going to and from work.

I used to commute 60+ miles to and from work.  I’d get up about 5:30AM, leave about 6:15AM, get to work by 7:30AM, work until about 4:30PM, then get home about 5:30PM (on a good day).  After that, I was tired.  And I didn’t come home to screaming kids with school and sporting events and so on.  Are we so busy and distracted that we hardly recognize that we live in an ecosystem of great fragility?  In fact, all our commuting, all our busyness, all our consumption, only broadens our carbon footprint.

This is not a rant against work, or a cry to get ourselves back to the garden.  But surely there’s a better way of striking a balance between work and everything else.  I recall watching Michael Moore’s documentary, “Where to Invade Next.”  The segments on Italy and Germany are telling here.  In Italy, workers get much more vacation time than their U.S. counterparts, roughly five weeks plus 12 national holidays (watch this segment).  U.S. workers by comparison are lucky to get two weeks’ paid vacation.  In Germany, Moore asks a bunch of German workers if they have second jobs.  They look at him like he’s crazy.  One job is enough, they say, at which they work about 36-38 hours a week.  What do you do with all the “extra” time, Moore asks.  Hang out at a café, read, and otherwise decompress, they answer.

I recall that Italian workers often get a long break so they can go home and prepare lunch for the family.  U.S. workers may be lucky to get 30 minutes (often unpaid), or even 15 minutes, for lunch, during which they’re fortunate to be able to bolt down some (probably unhealthy) fast food.

Some things in life shouldn’t be “fast,” like food.  And some things shouldn’t dominate our lives, like work.  Sure, some people work long hours at jobs they love, and if that’s the case, go for it.  But America’s work mania has its costs, including an estrangement from ourselves as well as the living world around us.

5 thoughts on “Work Mania

  1. Per the picture, even if one has never seen “I Love Lucy” they’d know the scene has to be comedy – note that under her uniform, Lucy is wearing pearls.


  2. I remember when in Europe we stopped working – and going to school – on Saturday mornings. The idea indeed was that we would have more time to indulge in hobbies, sport, going playing with the kids etc. As it turned out, many people spent the free time mostly watching TV, but work-relax balance improved vastly. Now however, there’s increasing unemployment caused not only by cheap labour elsewhere but also to a great extent by automatisation, from cars being built by robots, to provision of traditional services like banking, buying tickets or paying for groceries increasingly being transferred to the customers, who are conned into doing it themselves via the internet, ‘to save time’ but in reality to allow the companies who offer those ‘services’ to lay off a maximum of employees. Whenever a lady behind a counter asks me why I pay cash instead of using a bank card, I answer : ‘so that you do not loose your job’.
    This unemployment has alreay led to decreasing working conditions and ‘garbage contracts’ which are kept just within the legally defined time frame for ‘temporary employment’, so that the employer does not need to pay social security, old age pension contributions etc. Between unemployment and pensioners without a financial future, all this is creating a social time bomb.

    As for Italy, anyone who ever lived there knows the flip-side of the many holidays, relaxed ways and never ending strikes :-), but that certainly is to be preferred over the callous US system.
    And I will never forget a visit around 1970 to an Olivetti office equipment factory near Torino : set among rolling hills and forests, the factory was all ground floor with glass walls overlooking the greenery and flowerbeds all along the walls. The women at the assembly lines would switch places every week to reduce monotony, transport inside the sprawling building was on colourful bicycles. The canteen served decent food and there were in-house medical services. The women were transported from town to their work by company busses, together with their children below school age, who would be looked after in the company’s kindergarten and outdoor playgrounds.
    Hard to believe now and even then it was exceptional.
    But that was before the 1% had become so greedy as to revert to 19th century slavery capitalism.


  3. The trends you describe are a large part of the reason why I left the US in 2010 and have only been back for four hours (to change planes at LAX). I started by teaching English in South Korea for a year, and then came to Mexico. I am now Residente Permanente and happily settled in the fantastic city of Querétaro in the central part of the country. Safe, clean, historic, cultured, prosperous, business-friendly, affordable, and blessed by the most perfect climate I have ever experienced. (Hottest midsummer day, 85 degrees; coldest midwinter night, 45 degrees; fresh mountain air – we’re higher than Denver; no hurricanes, earthquakes, or other violent natural events.)

    Life is indeed more relaxed here, and I am writing this (of course) from a café. Early Friday evening, 82 degrees but only 17% humidity, sunny, light breeze. And happy people. It is heaven.


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