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.
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.