The Overworked American Essay

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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.


  1. Eblin, Scott. Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
  2. Schor, Juliet. Plenitude: The Economics of True Wealth. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
  3. Schor, Juliet B. and Craig J. Thompson. Sustainable Lifestyles and the Quest  for Plenitude. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
  4. Schulte, Brigid. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No  One  Has Time. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2014.

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