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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Of Course We Should All be Working Less

America’s pro-work culture is destroying our health and well-being. Bernie Sanders has the right idea in calling for a 4-day workweek.

Bernie Sanders is calling for a 4-day workweek. As he put it:

In 1940, the Fair Labor Standards Act reduced the workweek to 40 hours. Today, as a result of huge advances in technology and productivity, now is the time to lower the workweek to 32 hours—with no loss in pay. Workers must benefit from advanced technology, not just the 1%.

Bernie is right to point out that there is no law of the universe that says that we must work 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, for 40 hours, or what’s otherwise known as the “full time” designation. Those numbers are a result of labor struggles in which workers fought for much longer workdays to be scaled back. But we also know that working so much just isn’t all that pleasant. While some of us may like our jobs (indeed, I enjoy my job here at Current Affairs), the fact is that there are many good reasons to work less, even at the least-torturous jobs. Ample leisure is an important human right. As Bernie added in a separate tweet: “We can reduce the stress level in our country and allow Americans to enjoy a better quality of life” by reducing the workweek.

There’s a lot about work in our society that is undesirable and harmful. In the first place, the fact that we have to earn a wage in order to have our basic human needs met—housing, food, water, electricity, transportation, education—is coercive. Because we as a society choose not to provide the basics for everyone, all of us who are not independently wealthy must work or starve (or attach ourselves to someone else who works to earn a wage).

And because work is made into a thing which makes us deserving of survival, we demonize those who cannot or simply don’t work outside the home. Look at the GOP-backed public benefit work requirements. “I don’t think it’s right that we … pay somebody who has no dependents, able-bodied to sit on a couch,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said, evoking stereotypes of poor people as lazy—or as being poor because they are lazy. (Of course, work requirements simply serve as an administrative burden to make it as difficult as possible for people to get benefits, especially parents or caregivers who are working inside the home, just not for any pay. The new debt ceiling deal includes work requirements for food stamps but not Medicaid.) McCarthy added that work gives a person “worth and value.” This is, of course, a pernicious lie, as work may indeed be valuable to society and individuals, but we all have intrinsic value as people regardless of work.

Then there’s the fact of how much Americans work: far more than peer nations, according to a 2019 report by the People’s Policy Project. “In one year, the average American worker labors more hours than the average worker in any peer nation.” Additionally, “the U.S. works 269 more hours than its enormously wealthy economy would predict—making it by this measure the second-most overworked country in the world, just slightly behind Iceland.” In several European countries, for instance, workers are entitled to at least five weeks of annual vacation as a right. Not so in the U.S. What’s worse, even as the U.S. has prospered, worker hours have not decreased as in other wealthy nations. Americans take less vacation and have fewer benefits (no universal child care or healthcare, for instance) than citizens of other peer nations.

Then there’s the kind of work many people are doing. A list of some of the largest employers in the U.S. includes, in descending order, Walmart, Amazon, Home Depot, FedEx, Target, Kroger, UPS, and Starbucks. Most of these companies offer brutal, unsafe, or otherwise hostile working conditions along with low pay (such that employees turn to food stamps and Medicaid to survive). Additionally, according to government statistics, the percentage of U.S. workers who hold more than one job has been increasing over the last 20 years. Second-job holders tend to be lower wage workers. These second jobs tend to cluster in industries such as healthcare and social assistance; accommodation and food services; retail; and administrative and support and waste management and remediation services. This was a trend noted in 2021, before the current rise in inflation, which has, of course, made living conditions even more difficult. Some people juggle two full-time jobs; others sell plasma to get by.

There are also what David Graeber called the bullshit jobs, those that are “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence” (even if it pays well). Some arguably do more harm than good. Those latter jobs include finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE), which shuffle money around. As Aravind “Vinny” Byju argued in this magazine, some elite bullshit jobs exist simply for the prestige conferred upon the well-educated people who compete for those jobs and accept them. All bullshit jobs create what Graeber called conditions of “spiritual violence.”1 As he wrote:

There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves. We have become a civilization based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself. We have come to believe that men and women who do not work harder than they wish at jobs they do not particularly enjoy are bad people unworthy of love, care, or assistance from their communities. It is as if we have collectively acquiesced to our own enslavement.

The problem with work, then, is that it’s so unpleasant for so many people. Nobody—no matter their education level or skill set—should have to toil in unsafe, poor-paying, degrading, dull, or multiple jobs just to pay for their human needs to be met. No one should work for unjust pay, either. And it is also cruel and unnecessary to tie our ability to get healthcare to our job. The state of work in the U.S. is a crime against our humanity and dignity. 

I’ve worked a few different jobs in my life. After college, I got a 40-hour-per-week office job where I made phone calls, did paperwork, and recruited people to volunteer for research projects at an academic medical center. It was extremely boring, and it paid around $21,000 per year. I didn’t enjoy that job in the least. (Incidentally, that was also the time period in which I started to realize that having a college degree did not necessarily translate into a good income. I had earned a college degree and yet the only job I could find in my hometown—which required a college degree!—paid so little.) The work seemed important—researchers, after all, do good work. But why should I have to do it for 40 hours a week and 8 hours straight each weekday?

Then I went through medical training, where the work ranged from 40-80 hours a week and shifts of up to 30 hours straight at a time.2 I consider those the lost years of my life because I did nothing outside of work other than sleep, eat, and figure out what I was going to eat next. I can say with certainty that working 30 hours straight didn’t teach me all that much about how to take care of patients or about the meaning of “hard work,” but it did teach me how horrible it feels to be awake for 30 hours without sleep or rest, which I don’t recommend to anyone. The experience also made me realize that, like any workers who must perform in unhealthy or risky conditions (night shift, for instance, or dangerous conditions such as those faced by rail workers, who have “one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), my fellow trainees and I should have gotten hazard pay.

After training, I got a part-time medical job that allowed me to have some semblance of “work-life balance” (I wrote about this in a piece about cooking). This experience reinforced for me just how arbitrary and unnecessary it is to insist that people work exactly 40 hours or more per week. Even 32 hours, which was what I worked in my part-time job, was downright exhausting. (I’ve seen some job offerings for 4-day workweeks in which they mean a compressed workweek of four 10-hour shifts. This is not the kind of 4-day workweek we should aim for.)

All of this is to say that Bernie is right to call for fewer work hours. But why stop at 32 hours? We ought to start the conversation at 24 hours or even less. And the justification for fewer hours needs to go beyond what Bernie said about productivity. In other words, it’s not just that we have “earned” the right to work less because of how much more productive workers are now than in the past. We deserve the right to work less because the purpose of our lives as humans is not to toil for the benefit of the wealthy, or to toil to earn worthiness, or even to raise the GDP. We deserve to work less because we deserve to have more time to enjoy our lives.3 We don’t have to keep holding on to the bootstraps mentality or embrace the idea that we are a meritocracy—especially when social mobility has decreased, the rich tend to get richer, and the rest of us just keep working more.

Lately, I have taken inspiration from a beautiful book written by my colleague Nathan J. Robinson called Echoland. In this society of the future, technology has been harnessed to automate the production of material goods, and everyone’s basic needs are met. Knowledge is freely shared, transportation is available for all, and people enjoy elaborate, slow meals, lazy rivers and festivals, and dressing however they please (the concept of gender has not been weaponized as in our current society). But we can’t go to Echoland. We’ve got to create our own version of it on Earth. This starts with believing that work doesn’t define us or make us worthy of living our lives or enjoying leisure. We already deserve to have our needs met. We have to start to demand less work—more paid holidays, mandatory vacation time, for instance—and withhold that work to get it and other workplace demands met.

  1. Graeber had a term for jobs that were highly important to the functioning of society but that were low paying and of low prestige, such as garbage collecting or farm work. He called these “shit” jobs, emphasizing that they were not bullshit jobs. As Byju rightly pointed out, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., all labor has dignity and ought to be fairly compensated. 

  2. Trainee work hour limits have since been reduced

  3. As much as I enjoy my job, I would also love more time to do other things like become a pastry chef or learn how to sing or talk to random people in the streets about why they should be socialists. 

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