Workism is Making Americans Miserable

Over at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson has a piece on how Workism Is Making Americans Miserable. He’s not wrong.

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

Homo industrious is not new to the American landscape. The American dream—that hoary mythology that hard work always guarantees upward mobility—has for more than a century made the U.S. obsessed with material success and the exhaustive striving required to earn it.

No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year. And the gap between the U.S. and other countries is growing. Between 1950 and 2012, annual hours worked per employee fell by about 40 percent in Germany and the Netherlands—but by only 10 percent in the United States. Americans “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies,” wrote Samuel P. Huntington in his 2005 book Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity.

Derek Thompson

The End of Leisure

Over at The Hedgehog Review, Charlie Tyson writes about the Virtuosos of Idleness, and the nature of leisure (and its loss in modern society). It’s an interesting read. There are a number of articles about the coming work-pocalypse of increased automation and the massive inequalities introduced by the “gig economy,” but it’s also worthwhile to look at how we spend our off-time. One choice bit that struck a chord:

Most Americans today find work drudgery and leisure anxiously vacant. In our hours off work, we rarely achieve thrilling adventure, deliberate self-education, or engage in Whitmanian loafing. At the same time, faith is eroding in the idea that paid work can offer pleasure, self-discovery, a means for improving the world, or anything more than material subsistence.

Charlie Tyson

I mean, they’re not wrong. I’m lucky enough to have a decent job with some flexibility to learn and grow, but jobs like that are decidedly not the majority of jobs out there. And while the work side might not be terrible at the moment, the “vacant leisure” is real. The author continues:

Recreational pursuits more demanding than fleeting digital absorption are, increasingly, acts of consumption. Leisure is not something you “do” but something you “buy,” whether in the form of hotels and cruises or Arianna Huffington–vetted mindfulness materials. The leisure industry provides work for some while promising relaxation to others, for a fee.

The sorry state of leisure is partly a consequence of an economy in which we are never fully detached from the demands of work. The category of “free” time is not only defined by its opposite (time “free” of work); it is subordinated to it. Free time, Theodor Adorno warns, “is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labor.” Free time is mere recovery time. Spells of lethargy between periods of labor do little but prepare us for the resumption of work. Workers depleted by their jobs and in need of recuperation turn to escapist entertainment and vacuous hobbies. And the problem of figuring out when work is “over,” in an economy in which knowledge workers spend their job hours tweeting and their evening hours doing unpaid housework and child care, has never seemed more perplexing.

Charlie Tyson

Yep. The conversation continues from there, and is worth the time to read.

Link: United States of Workaholics

Over at Medium, Melody Wilding has a piece on the United States of Workaholics, which is worth a read.

A few notable things: turns out statistics show the trope about millennials being being lazy/not working is bullshit, which I find entirely unsurprising for a variety of reasons. Also, we’re doing this to ourselves, fostering a culture where taking time off is frowned upon (though rarely explicitly), and things like unlimited-time-off policies end up causing people to take less time off than they would otherwise. We already have less time off than many developed countries, and then we culturally place pressure to not even use what we have. (This came up again in a recent Verge article about toxic management practices in the game industry, also worth a read.)

One fascinating study found that many top performers fake long hours to meet expectations. They simulated work martyrdom to preserve their reputation as a model employee. Those who chose honesty and instead formally requested lighter workloads were denied or punished for it, according to the study.

But how do we deal with it? How do we overcome decades of systemic cultural mentality that one must always be busy, and that more hours means more productivity? (Not even getting into the notion that we must always be producing more, which is itself problematic.) I don’t blame the folks who faked how long they worked, but I don’t think lying about it is a real solution.

Link: Being tired isn’t a badge of honor

Jason Fried speaks Truth about the tech industry’s love affair with overwork over on Signal v. Noise. This has been a perennial issue in games (where terms like “crunch” and “death march” are used often), but is definitely happening in general software as well. It’s a demonstrably stupid and abusive idea with repeated studies showing it is, and yet it’s still prevalent. When an industry is attractive (like games, like the current 2.0 Dot Com gold rush), it’s easy for investors and management to adopt a “burn and churn” mentality about their workers.

Utah Phillips on Work

That’s when [Fry Pan Jack] told me – you know, he’d been tramping since 1927 – he said, “I told myself in ’27, if I cannot dictate the conditions of my labor, I will henceforth cease to work.” Hah! You don’t have to go to college to figure these things out, no sir! He said, “I learned when I was young that the only true life I had was the life of my brain. But if it’s true the only real life I have is the life of my brain, what sense does it make to hand that brain to somebody for eight hours a day for their particular use on the presumption that at the end of the day they will give it back in an unmutilated condition?” Fat chance! Utah Phillips