Many of the people I’ve met since moving to DC appear to be miserable.
Their misery comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s tied to narrow unfulfilled needs, while others are stressed and broadly dissatisfied with their lives, including those whom our culture would deem most “successful.” So many professionals I know struggle to develop or maintain meaningful friendships: their schedules preclude spontaneous encounters, and it’s a challenge even to plan get-togethers with enough frequency that they actually know their would-be friend. They spend a significant chunk of money on tasks they’d do themselves if they weren’t working 40 or more hours per week—entailing not mere financial but also environmental expenditures in their effort to buy back some free time. They have dreams of developing, enriching, and creating—dreams that so often would have not just personal but also broad social benefits—but they rarely have a moment free for these activities, and they virtually always fail to find enough moments to string together into any coherent, meaningful activity. When they do find a bit of time, they’re likely to lack energy.
In all of the cases of misery I’ve encountered, one thing stands out: if both they and others in their lives had more time, they could significantly erode their burdens.
But look! On the other side of the same coin, we have the unemployed and underemployed. These folks are usually searching desperately for work; they might have an expensive degree to pay off; they might be afraid college isn’t worth the risk; or they might not be suited for college. (Such people have always and will always exist; they too have contributed meaningfully to our society and they too need food, shelter, and dignity.) Members of this heterogeneous unemployed group nevertheless are likely to share a few things: namely an abundance of time, copious anxiety, and heaps of shame if they’ve internalized their failure to find work.
Friends, it’s time to apply a little of C. Wright Mills’ famed sociological imagination and recognize what the society we’ve constructed is doing to us, with an aim to reinvent. If only the stressed professionals could give some of their work to those who are so desperate to find some! But how could we possibly do that? An individual is powerless to change The System, right? It’s to daunting to even consider taking on something we see as natural as so-called “full time work.”
Well, the first step is to realize that this is all socially constructed, and it can be constructed another way.
And everyone’s favorite proto-socialist utopia, Sweden, is taking the first step toward doing that! Those freedom-hating Swedes are experimenting with a 6 hour work day, amounting to a 30-hour week. The article I just linked, from The Independent, makes an apparent effort to establish credibility in our business-centered culture by citing a CEO who implemented such a shift in his company last year:
“The eight-hour work day is not as effective as one would think,” Linus Feldt, the company’s CEO told Fast Company.
“To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the work day more endurable. At the same time, we are having it hard to manage our private life outside of work.”
I totally agree with Mr. Feldt, who sounds like a wise and enlightened fellow. It’s worth noting, though, that our cultural need to justify this policy with the authority of someone bearing the title of Chief Executive Officer points to a significant part of our problem. I’m sure it is more profitable to have healthy, happy employees, but it is not primarily for the benefit of profit that we should call for health and happiness. What we really need are for ordinary individuals to push for change, changing the culture that pressures so many to work 50 hour weeks at the same time, and declaring that we value our own health and happiness even if other CEOs, less enlightened than Mr. Feldt, do not.
John Maynard Keynes predicted in his 1932 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” that advances in production technology would reduce work time and allow the population as a whole to work as little as 15 hours per week by 2030. Business commentators like to throw out lots of reasons that Keynes prediction has not come to pass, such as the argument that people like working themselves into states of illness, but these anecdotal stories about the few individuals who really do think that way stand in stark contrast with the vast majority of people I actually know; they definitely don’t include the people who aren’t fortunate enough to be “doing what they love.” The business writers’ arguments fail to address why so many people are so stressed and unhappy. A more compelling explanation for the failure of Keynes’ prediction is that capitalism instead channeled the dividends from improved technology toward even more production, opting to steer society toward more consumption instead of more time. To support this, advertisers manufacture further needs, never acknowledging that what so many need more than anything is time.
In a wonderfully readable and engaging book on the subject published early this year (2016), David Frayne, a lecturer in the UK, interviews an assortment of individuals who have decided they’re not going to play the 9-5 game anymore. Frayne interviews an ex-lawyer in her early thirties, Samantha, who realized that she was miserable and therefore decided to quit; now she works part-time as a waitress. Her parents see this as a regression; that adults accept that working “full time” (a social construction, remember!), especially in a high-status job, is what defines maturity. Samantha, however, has stepped outside of the social prescription: she defines maturity as making informed, autonomous choices. Samantha’s parents assert that she needs to “live in the real world.”
If “reality” is that which is not subject to our volition, then Samantha’s continued survival suggests that her parents are wrong that working 40 hours is “the real world.” And Samantha, incidentally, is already the second ex-lawyer turned waitress I’ve come across in my reading this year. The first is Tama Kieves, whom the reviews always tout immediately as Harvard-trained in an obvious effort to establish her social respectability. (Personally, after reading one of her books, I respect her more for her authenticity and courage than her alma mater.) Like Samantha, Ms. Kieves made the decision to leave her role as a successful corporate attorney because she was miserable. Kieves is now a coach for creative people seeking to live an inspired life using their natural talents.
Even if we hadn’t found a CEO and a Harvard-trained ex-attorney to say these things, though, they’d be the truth. There’s nothing natural about the 40 hour week: it is merely a policy. We can make new policies. Given the prevalence of unemployment, of automation, of the increasing inequality between those working low-wage jobs and those in high-income/high-stress positions, it’s time to rethink this policy. While some work is socially necessary, and while a reasonable amount of it can be a meaningful way to make a contribution and even contribute to well-being, we can do it in a saner way, dividing the necessary tasks in a way that erodes both unemployment and overwork. That saner world is quite attainable if we begin a broader conversation about what really is reality and what we’re just doing out of fear that we’ll lose status by pointing out a naked emperor—that many of our “elite” jobs really don’t matter as much as we think they do, and aren’t the optimal ways for us to live healthy, meaningful lives or realize our fullest contribution to society.
This is a massive and complex subject. I’m sure many of you have already thought of hurdles, and I invite you to share them. But we need to launch this discussion. I’ll surely write more precisely-focused blogs on this theme in the future. For now, though, I’ll ask you: if you had perfect autonomy in this area, how many hours would you want to engage in paid employment? Do you have other motives beyond economic security, or is this the only reason you work? What would you do with your time if you didn’t have to work? And anything else you feel like sharing on this subject!