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Working It All Out

Give It a Break, Already:The problem of overwork affects all demographic groups--it is depressingly common to all. Since 1969, the average worker has added one month of work time to his or her annual schedule, and the average family over 1000 more hours per year of work.

Looking to a leisurely future finally free from labor's pains

By Jim Mulac

If you take the short view of our current political, cultural and employment environment, it's not a pretty picture. More work stress, less leisure time for workers. More jail time for the errant, less money for arts and education. More cynicism, less empathy. More scapegoating of victims, less grace in our lives. But lest we despair, there is a wave stirring to address these issues and take us smoothly into the 21st Century.

The movement is lead by people like Benjamin Hunnicutt of the University of Iowa Leisure Studies Department. Hunnicutt is a big fan of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who in the 1920s envisioned the growing role of the machine in the workforce as a great liberator of human values. "I see a new future where freedom from work will become our major preoccupation," wrote Fisher at the time. Hunnicutt also conjures up W.K. Kellogg--the visionary cornflake king and health advocate--who early in the century instituted the six-hour workday at his Battle Creek, Mich., plants and who felt the fruit of industrialism should be "leisure and time for family and culture."

Explains Hunnicutt, "These liberation capitalists saw the machine freeing people from work for life outside of work, expanding time for free activities, things to do with the family, expanding the humane world, giving substance to the promise of the Declaration of Independence for the pursuit of Happiness. There was a great deal of optimism and hope pinned on a progressive development of industrialization that included not only higher wages but also shorter hours--higher wages for the good material things in life and shorter work hours and more leisure for the 'more humane and moral benefits of a democratic society,' to use Jefferson's phrase."

What happened to this vision--one that was rooted back as far as the colonial Puritans and Quakers and grew out of the spirit of the founding fathers, as well as that of Emerson and Thoreau? It was undermined by business interests consciously creating a culture of consumption, says Hunnicutt.

Self-reliant rural Americans and new working-class immigrants, strong with frugality and homecraft skills, were disparaged for wearing homemade clothes or using "old-fashioned" ways and goods. "Real Americans" used nothing but new, store-bought goods and services. Jefferson's resourceful democratic citizenry gave way to the 20th-century consumer society. A society opting for more leisure with less income was seen as a threat to the interests of business. The invention and explosive popularity of radio vastly expanded the power of mass-market advertising.

In 1932, a bill was introduced in Congress to reduce the work week to 30 hours in order to provide work-sharing during the Great Depression. Roosevelt supported it, but the business community was against it, preferring to see the government get into work creation to expand the economy. Since then, politicians have been barking the mantra of "Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!"

"Ask someone who they are and their identity is tied to their work," quips Hunnicutt. "Leisure became trivialized, and the serious responsibilities of leisure culture--family and community--were neglected as work became a moral solvent for the results of that neglect."

Culture of Materialism

Today, this culture of work and spend has reached a crisis point according to Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. "The rise in hours of work and the increasing pace of everyday life is general and pervasive," says Schor. "The problem of overwork affects all demographic groups--Baby Boomers, blue collar workers, yuppies. It is depressingly common to all. Since 1969, the average worker has added one month of work time to his or her annual schedule. The contemporary two-parent family with two children has added 1,000 hours per year of work outside the home.

"Longer hours are a predictable outcome of capitalist society--on account of the structural bias toward work and against leisure,' says Schor. "In our time, that bias is caused by two factors: fringe benefits--which operate like a lump-sum tax on each employee, leading employers to want to hire fewer people and work them longer hours--and salaried work, in which additional hours are free to the employer."

A culture of materialism, high consumption and easy spending is encouraged by the corporate community, according to Schor. Workers with mortgages, children and even debts are preferred by employers because they're more dependent on their jobs and more controllable. "Even if we had family-friendly workplaces, it wouldn't be enough," Schor posits. "We must also address the question of spending. Keeping up with the Joneses has changed since the 1950s--the Joneses are now in the next office cubicle, since no one has time to actually know their residential neighbors anymore."

Schor refers to this as the "double whammy"--being caught between the stress of the work environment and the pressures of the consumer environment. But the earth's finite resources and fragile environment should also concern us. "Can we construct an economy and culture where people are better off with less?" asks Schor. "Less work, less stress, less crime, less violence, less inequity, less shopping and less stuff. We must acknowledge this head on."

Jeremy Rifkin, author of The End of Work, offers a searing vision of the employment prospects of the oncoming Information Age. "By the year 2020, we can expect the elimination of blue collar workers on the factory floor. Ninety percent of job loss in the past decade has been to technological replacement, not moving work overseas. White collar service-sector and middle-management jobs are also deconstructing," says Rifkin. "We can expect workerless factories and virtual companies--they're already here. We are already seeing a new tripartite structure in successful competitive industry: a small entrepreneurial elite, beneath them a very highly skilled professional team and below that a 'just in time' workforce."

As Rifkin sees it, only the very highest expertise will be needed in this market-driven meritocracy, with little room for "garden variety skills." Software will widely distribute the talents of these elite. "The Industrial Age was based on mass human labor, but the Information Age is based on small, elite, boutique work forces, highly skilled, working alongside very sophisticated intelligent machines. And success in the new age will be measured by fewer, not more, knowledge sector jobs."

What to Do With the People?

A deeply polarizing and destabilized society is already taking shape. "We are on the cusp of a technological revolution that could free millions and millions of people from the toil of the marketplace. The question is will we be freeing them for unemployment or for leisure? Will we shorten the workforce or the work week?" Rifkin asks.

"Two central issues haven't been raised yet in this country, and are just being raised in Europe," says Rifkin. "What do you do with the millions of people who are going to be needed less or not at all in an increasingly automated, global economy? That's a tough question to ask publicly. And how do we begin a debate in every country of how best to share the vast productivity gains of this technology revolution so that it benefits not just an elite corporate few, but the widest segment of the population of each country?"

Others are less apprehensive of the downsizing mechanisms of the Information Age and more concerned with a radical personal response to the stresses of "work and spend." Vicki Robin, president of the New Roadmap Foundation and co-author of Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence, a book that has sold more than half a million copies, says her intention is to help people determine for themselves what is enough.

Robin--who lives on $7,000 per year and donates the profits from her work to charity--believes, "Everyone's 'enough' will be different. 'Enough' is a place of freedom. First you have to ask the question, 'What is money?' Money equals your life energy. You pay for money with your time. Everything you own represents life energy invested and is an expression of what you think is important. By honoring our own life energy--by not wasting it--we honor ourselves. And we have more freedom and options about how to spend our time."

This kind of self-liberation is within everyone's grasp right now, Robin says, with no need to look for help from the government or from employers. She describes a growing cadre of financially independent people--"free radicals" who have liberated themselves from the corporate workplace to serve society and pursue higher priorities.

"One anomaly of our society," Robin points out, "is that we behave as though we were in a condition of scarcity when we're in a condition of affluence. As a culture, we really suffer more from diseases of 'too muchness' than from diseases of scarcity--too much fat on our bodies, too much clutter, too much ambition, too much seduction in the marketplace, too many cable channels to pick from, too many choices of breakfast cereal. Everything is just too much!"

According to Rifkin, even business leaders are beginning to sense threatening contradictions in the present system. Much of the investment capital for Wall Street comes from employee pension funds. As the number of employees shrinks, so does this pool of available capital. A shrinking and scared middle class also affects retail sales. "The past Christmas season was an eye-opener for retailers in America and all over Europe as well."

Rifkin believes the solution lies in work sharing and shorter hours. He predicts the 30-hour work week will be standard by 2005. "It's on the front of the political agenda in Europe right now," he notes.

Betty Friedan, founding president of the National Organization for Women, believes the social problems associated with corporate downsizing are the central issue of our time, as the Vietnam War was in the 1960s. "There has to be a new political movement, a new model, not communism or laissez faire capitalism, that puts the lives of all people and the community as a priority. We need something other than the Dow Jones index--we need a quality of life index."

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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