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Americans are working harder than ever before. Beginning late in the previous century, this phenomenon, typical of the United States, seems to be expanding today from America to the rest of the world. Juliet Schor’s seminal book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992) argues that since the 1970s, working hours increased dramatically for men and women, including professionals and low-income workers. Not only have the work hours increased significantly but also the workloads. Different conditions still prevail in other advanced Western nations in Europe, in which individuals work fewer hours and enjoy longer vacations. Schor joins the cadres of scholars who argue that Americans today live and work in a society shaped by powerful corporations, an increasingly weak state, and government policies that favor employers over employees.
In her work, Schor explains that in the early 1970s, after years of labor activism and government labor-regulating policies, the workweek had declined to slightly below 39 weekly hours. During the next two decades, however, the workweek increased gradually, until by the early 1990s, workers on average toiled the equivalent of an additional month of paid work a year. The consequence of this increased workload was the gradual reduction of leisure, especially as households became increasingly dependent on two incomes.
In most traditional societies, work was considered a valuable social good and an activity of major social importance. Religious rituals and festivals revolved around work and its results, such as harvest seasons. Later on, the early Catholic Church understood toil as prescribed pain or punishment imposed on humanity for their original sin. Until the modern era, however, leisure and family time were considered of paramount importance for community and individual well-being.
The idea of the value of work as a discrete activity appeared around the 17th century, or the early modern era, in Western nations with predominantly Protestant cultures, such as England and the Netherlands. As the economies of these countries grew, they gave way to the incipient capitalistic system. During the Industrial Revolution, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, craft or artisanal work gave way to industrial work, which in turn greatly worsened working conditions. To survive in the new economic system, which was based on the accumulation of capital, workers were forced to put work before family needs and home life. In short, work passed from being a cottage industry in which family and community life were often involved and important to a discrete activity engaged in with the purpose of earning wages.
In time, a new belief system or ideology developed in which work and economic growth for its own sake were considered good. From an activity meant to meet economic needs, it moved to being a morally and socially justified moral value. Work carried its own reward and justified human existence. Inhumane and exploitative working conditions developed during the industrial era saw some relief during the Progressive Era, when activist and government policies shortened the workweek, among other measures meant to ease the burden on workers. The ideology of work, however, continues to pervade advanced societies and has been hotly debated in the past decades.
Significance Of The Overworked American Today
As Schor explains, the main balancing influence on exploitative labor practices was the labor movement. At its inception, capitalism had workweeks of up to 80 hours. Through years of union activism and government policies, the workweek was gradually reduced. Unions in the United States, however, have become weaker, while government regulations on labor and economic practices have eroded over time. The practice of paying time and a half for overtime work, for example, was initially meant to benefit workers and make it costlier for employers to require more work hours. Today, it is preferred by many employers as an alternative to hiring more workers. In practice, this results in overworked employees and growing unemployment. Moreover, living standards and real take-home income have stagnated since the early 1970s.
While leisure time has diminished in quality and quantity, shopping has become the main cultural activity in the country. People, lacking time, can no longer participate in fulfilling leisure pursuits that require time expenditure and the development of skills, such as the arts and theater. The lack of time in which to develop meaningful leisure activities impels people to spend a great percentage of their income on entertainment, goods, and services. Schor also argues that the typically American approach to time, in which the waste of time is something to be avoided, puts it at odds with other cultures that have a very different approach to time and leisure.
- Eblin, Scott. Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
- Schor, Juliet. Plenitude: The Economics of True Wealth. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
- Schor, Juliet B. and Craig J. Thompson. Sustainable Lifestyles and the Quest for Plenitude. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
- Schulte, Brigid. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has Time. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2014.