Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | January 5, 2009


In the early twentieth century, many thinkers wondered aloud what people would do with all their free time come the turn of the millennium. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes cast his gaze forward to the lives of his generation’s grandchildren, and predicted that the steady accumulation of capital would compel them to face their “permanent problem – how to use [their] freedom from pressing economic cares…to live wisely and agreeably and well.” He suggested that by 2030 they might still work three hours a day just to “satisfy the old Adam” in most of them. Two years later, the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote of those who “would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work,” and called this “a condemnation of our civilization.” He believed that the four-hour workday was already within reach for Britain, a state of affairs that would cause “happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia.” And as late as 1965, a U.S. Senate subcommittee, echoing the common belief of the time, predicted that the workweek would dwindle to 22 hours by 1985, and to 14 hours by the year 2000, with vacations in the range of 7 to 10 weeks. Serious men of purpose anxiously awaited the inevitable waves of boredom that were sure to sweep the nation. 


Like most prophets of the future, they were wrong. But it is worth examining why things didn’t turn out the way they thought they would — the better to perhaps help their predictions come true.


Certainly, the remarkable productivity gains of the past century – quadrupling in the United States, for example – would lead one to believe that we of the industrialized world should be blessed with ample leisure time by now. Productivity, after all, means less input (work) for the same output (goods and services). But it can also mean the same input for more output, and this seems to be closer to what has happened, as people accepted bigger, better, faster things – and more of them — instead of more free time. As John Stuart Mills famously wrote, “It is questionable if all the mechanical devices yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.” They’ve just allowed us to do increasingly more within the limited 24-hour day.


Over the past thirty years, this choice for consumerism over leisure time has been especially evident in the United States . While productivity gains did initially translate into more free time, with work hours declining from about 60 hours a week at the beginning of the century to 40 by the early 1970’s, hours have been creeping upwards again since then, accounting for about an extra month’s worth of work per year now. Americans, points out Professor Juliet Schor in her landmark book, The Overworked American, are now working longer than medieval peasants did.


The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world without minimum paid vacation legislation. By law, Brazilians get 24-30 days off, French 25, Germans 24, and Britons 20 – even the Chinese get 15. In practice, the average is usually even higher. The American average is only 10.2 days after three years on the job, while a quarter of workers have no vacations at all.


In addition to minuscule vacations, overtime is rampant; three-quarters of Americans work more than 40 hours a week, and a third work over 50 hours. In average annual hours worked per person, Americans are now roughly tied with the famously industrious Japanese. Little wonder that the Japanese word karoshi, meaning “death from overwork”, was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary.


But before they keel over from job-related stress (which the UN called “the twentieth century disease” – presumably the twenty-first century has not brought a miraculous cure) Americans are spending more and more on an ever-widening range of goodies – many of them, from pills to tropical resort vacations to therapy, designed to deal with all that overwork. And they’re not letting their actual income limit their spending – more people declare personal bankruptcy in the U.S. each year than graduate from college.   


In Britain – where work hours have been more or less constant for the past 20 years — people are working about three weeks less per year than in the U.S., with half of all workers on the job for 40 plus hours a week. Countries that have seen their annual hours worked decline in the past 20 years include Japan, Ireland, Norway, and Belgium. West Germany, France, and the U.S. all worked similar hours in 1979, but by 1999 hours in Germany had fallen by 18 percent, and in France by 20 percent — while in America they grew by almost 10 percent. Interestingly, worker output per hour has been higher in Norway, France, and Belgium than in America since the mid-1990’s. This is likely due to the well-known link between work time reduction and increased worker productivity, as well-rested and healthier employees work more efficiently. Try telling that to the number one workaholics: the South Koreans. They work 26 percent more than Americans and 46 percent more than the least-working Dutch. 


Ironically, the rise of the consumerist ethic (closely tied to the work ethic – a link epitomized by the advertising slogan “work hard – play hard”) was in reaction to productivity gains. What should have been a cause for widespread celebration – the economy producing more than we needed – was instead perceived as the ill of “overproduction”. Industrialization had reached a fork in the road – either cut back production, or stimulate demand. The road to increased profits was clear – people had to be convinced to buy more. Shortly after the Second World War, in what could be the economic manifesto for the second half of the twentieth century, American retailing analyst Victor Lebow declared that, “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.” It is, in fact, misleading to say Americans “chose” material abundance over time abundance; more accurately, industry, with the help of advertising, diligently thrust the consumerist ethos upon the population.


Another argument for increased work time is that there’s a stronger “work ethic” in North America. But Canadian Anders Hayden, author of Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet, rejects this notion, citing that fact that the U.S. got the 40-hour work week before most European countries, in 1938. Sweden didn’t get theirs until 1973, and Sweden’s one of the nations with the shortest work hours today. “These things,” he says, “aren’t written in the national character.”


Instead, Hayden offers a different explanation: “People often tend to look at why the employee is working longer,” he says, “but it’s not, in most cases, the employee who decides. The pressure, for the most part, comes from the employer.”  The downsizing frenzy that swept the corporate world in the 1990’s, accompanied by government cutbacks to public service workers, has created a much more competitive job market. The survivors of layoffs have been forced to pick up the slack, or lose their jobs as well. Because of certain fixed costs per employee, employers believe it’s more profitable to work their existing staff longer than hire addition people. “What we’re seeing is a polarization of hours in Canada,” explains Hayden. The percentage of the workforce working 30 to 40 hours a week slipped from 56 percent in 1976, to 46 percent in 1998, “creating problems of overwork for some, and underemployment for others.”


Wages also seem to play a role in work hours; if a person is paid more, the logic goes, they often tend to choose more leisure. Conversely, if people are struggling to make ends meet, they’ll willingly accept more work hours. Economic historians – over eighty percent of them, according to one survey – agree that the reduction in work hours in America in the early twentieth century was primarily due to increased wages.


The rise in working hours in the U.S. could, therefore, be at least partly due to stagnant wages. For 60 percent of U.S. workers in the 1990’s, wages either fell below or barely kept pace with inflation. Meanwhile, in the final years of the decade, the profits from huge productivity gains, instead of being passed on to workers in the form of increased wages, were funnelled directly into the stock market. By 1997, the richest one percent owned an estimated 40 percent of the nation’s wealth — up from 20 percent in 1979. In a 1974 editorial, Business Week sized up this period of increasing inequality with ominous clarity: “It will be a hard pill for most Americans to swallow – the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. Nothing in this nation’s history will compare with the selling job that is required to get the people to accept a new reality.” Fortunately for big business, the advertising industry was already well seasoned from its selling job with consumerism.


So, what is it that has kept North Americans – and to a lesser extent Britons — slogging away at the job: the carrot of consumerism, or the stick of poverty? One way to assess that might be to simply ask people how much they’d like to be working. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Depending on how you phrase the question, you get wildly varying responses. One extensive study in Canada, for instance, found that only 6 percent of respondents wanted less work for less money. But when people were asked to decide between more time with their family, or more money, three-quarters chose their family. It’s not as if Canadians aren’t feeling the time crunch — 58% of employees reported high levels of work-family time “overload” in 2000, up from 47% in 1990. In all likelihood, it’s a bit of the carrot and the stick that keeps “old Adam” alive and well in the twenty-first century.




Whatever the causes of long work hours in the United States, many Americans have had enough. A coalition of likeminded groups and individuals from across the U.S. and Canada organized the first annual Take Back Your Time Day this past October 24th. The date, which falls about nine weeks before the end of the year, emphasizes the fact that Americans now average almost nine weeks (350 hours) more work per year than their peers in Western Europe. Coincidentally, October 24 also happens to be the anniversary of the date that the U.S. got the 40-hour workweek.


The gulf that exists between America and much of Europe when it comes to work hours was made abundantly clear in 1998 when a group in Germany began campaigning for six weeks vacations – for the unemployed. At the time, the unemployed could only be unreachable for three weeks and still receive government benefits. They wanted the same rights to vacations as the employed. That people could even conceive of such an argument, let alone advance it publicly and receive a serious hearing, speaks volumes to the chasm in attitudes to work between the two continents. 


Take Back Your Time Day is meant to address that chasm, and be a pause for reflection about “the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment.” Groups held upwards of 100 events in cities throughout the continent, with activities that ranged from public discussions with physicians and theologians, to improv comedy workshops. The movement was featured in Time Magazine (with a name like that, how could they resist), and CNN’s show, Money — which did an internet poll of 8000 people and found that 85% thought they were working too much. The Governor of Michigan made the day official in her state, while the hosts of National Public Radio’s popular Car Talk made an enthusiastic “call for inaction” on what they rechristened “International Slackers Day”. Not bad for a grassroots effort with a budget of $7000 and one part-time paid staff. “We’re case studies in overwork,” admits Time Day National Coordinator, John de Graaf. 


He hopes that all the work will pay off and Take Back Your Time Day will follow the precedent set by Earth Day. “Within three years of the first Earth Day,” he says, “all the U.S.’s most important environmental legislation was passed and signed by a conservative Republican President – Nixon. Our feeling was that if Earth Day could galvanize that kind of activity, then maybe a Time Day could really put the issue of overwork on the front burner.”


While work hours are the most coercive element of the pandemic of time scarcity seemingly afflicting many industrialized nations, there’s also the question of how people choose to spend their free time, and even their approach to time itself. We live in an achievement-driven society, where our purpose in life comes not so much from enjoyment, but from what we can accomplish. We are more likely to admire someone who has done “great things” than someone who knows how to have fun.


Along with the explosion in material goods, there has been a blossoming of options for how to spend our free time. Any resident of a moderately sized city could easily fill their days with a fascinating array of classes, performances, volunteering, and – of course – shopping. And one doesn’t even need to leave one’s house in order to soak up all that the 500-channel universe, internet, radio, telephone, books, magazines, and newspapers have to offer. While it’s good that all these activities are available to us, like consumerism, we have to learn how to say “enough”, and make time for unstructured, active, creative play.  


One obstacle to living a life with less money but more free time in our societies is that leisure has been highly commodified. Henry Ford, visionary capitalist that he was, foresaw this tantalizing possibility when he introduced the weekend for his assembly plant workers in 1926 – reasoning, correctly, that a full two days off in a row would encourage families to do things like take picnics in the country. Naturally, the Model T would take them there. Whereas in Ford’s day, free activities like socializing, community dances, and church occupied the bulk of leisure time, nowadays, most people have a hard time thinking of anything to do in their spare time that doesn’t cost money. As one French worker asked after his country’s decision to go to the 35-hour week, “…what is the worker going to do with his extra leisure time if he has no money?”


Surely, if we put our minds to it, we can come up with an answer – many answers – to his question. It’s only been in the last 50 years or so that leisure time has been subsumed into the great maw of the economic machine. For all of human history before then, fun was just something we did, not bought. As Keynes wrote about his grandchildren, “…it will be those peoples who can keep alive and cultivate into a fuller perfection the art of life itself, and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”


“I don’t think you’ll ever be given spare time on a platter,” says Ursula Franklin, a professor at the University of Toronto and author of The Real World of Technology. “If you don’t take your time…and say something rude to the people who try to monopolize it, it will not come.” If that happens, then, according to Judith Stamps, author of Unthinking Modernity, “…your whole life can pass by without you ever really living it…”


While some thinkers have found their leisure utopia in the future, others, like anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, have found it in the hunter-gatherer societies (which commonly work just three hours a day) that represent humanity’s shared past. For those sceptical of such utopian dreaming, the thinking around work time reduction does fit the mould – positioning paradise in some distant, yet not quite unattainable, place or time. On the other hand, the tangible results of reducing the workweek in many parts of Europe over the past two decades have been impressive, and set a new example for the rest of the industrialized world. Perhaps the dreamers are right, and after 10,000 years of toiling in the fields and factories, we will finally have come full circle and be working as little as our hunter-gatherer forebears – but with all the benefits of civilization now at our disposal. As Bertrand Russell summed it up, “Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”  

Copywrite Sean Butler 2004

Published in The Idler, December 2004, as “Take Your Time”


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