Shortage of Leisure

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As the twentieth century began, Americans were in the midst of what the historian Daniel Rodgers called a "long campaign against overwork" (p. 106). Concerns about the "national intoxication with work" began after the Civil War, smoldered through the 1880s, and caught fire as the nineteenth century drew to its close (p. 104). Critics began to characterize the "excessive working" as a "nation-wide obsession," a veritable "national feverishness" that was leaving widespread stress, "nervousness," and fatigue in its wake (p. 102).

Prominent individuals raised the alarm. Commenting on the "American character" on his last trip to the United States, Herbert Spencer observed that "the American, eagerly pursuing a future good, ignores what good the passing day offers. . . ." He knew several people who "suffered from nervous collapse . . . ; friends (one of whom was his uncle) who had killed themselves from overwork, or had been permanently incapacitated. . . ." He saw "immense injury . . . being done by the high-pressure life . . .; serious physical mischief caused by overwork. . . ." The consequences were all too evident; a tragic "inability to enjoy life," a new, voluntary slavery "to accumulation," and the "dwindling away of . . . [American] free institutions [such as the family and community]" (pp. 354–359).

Religious leaders and the medical profession took up the cry. Moralists and ministers likened overindulgence in work to drunkenness—a person could be just as addicted to work as whiskey, and the resulting social devastation just as bad. Physicians such as S. Wier Mitchell and George Beard, observing the "epidemic" of stress and overwork, found it necessary to coin a new medical term, "nurasthenia," to describe the peculiar malady.

"Self-help adviser" Annie Payson Call noted that Europeans had long recognized this ailment as "Americanitis," symptomatic of a singular national preoccupation with money and ignorance of all that life offered except work.

Newspapers and magazines seized the issue, publishing "scores of columns . . . indicting overwork and overworry" (Rodgers, p. 105). So much was written that Scribner's Magazine complained in 1896 that too much was being made of the story—that the "great deal of advice being given by writers and preachers to professional and businessmen . . . not to work so hard" had become a little hackneyed (p. 253). Still, the avalanche of articles and books grew.

As the new century began, public concern spread from anxiety about overwork among the middle classes to workers. The famous jurists Josephine Goldmark and Louis Brandise asked, "What good to the workers are the higher standards—better food, clothing, and shelter—so long as over-fatigue continues to limit or destroy their capacity of enjoying them?" (Frankfurter, pp. 284, 305, 669; see also Goldmark.) Numerous state labor bureaus, industrial commissions, and scientific studies bolstered Goldmark and Brandise's case. Based on more than ten years' research, the Yale economist Irving Fisher concluded, "The economic waste from undue fatigue is . . . much greater than the waste from [all] serious illness (sic). The number that suffer partial disability through [overwork] certainly constitutes the great majority of the population" (p. 669).

Even so, Goldmark maintained that "the fundamental" damage caused by overwork was to the family: "when both parents are away from home for twelve or thirteen hours . . . a day, the children receive . . . little attention." Study after study done throughout the industrial world had shown her that overwork "demoralizes all family life. When working hours are so long that the evening is invaded by labor, the exhausted worker . . . must unavoidably neglect all family duties, and loose the elevating influence of family life" (pp. 317, 246).

As the twenty-first century began, little seemed to have changed. Americans seemed just as concerned about overwork as ever; the press and electronic media just as full of stories about the damage done by long hours. If anything, complaints had increased.

Spencer's nineteenth-century warnings find echoes a century later in one of the longest-running mass media stories to come out of Japan. In 2004, American journalists were covering the "Karoshi syndrome," the sudden-death-from-overwork phenomenon that appeared to be sweeping that nation, writing the story as a cautionary tale for the United States. "Workaholic" entered the language in the 1970s and flourished subsequently in the media and among academics, giving a modern-sounding name to the churchmen's nineteenth-century moral concerns.

A myriad of reporters continue to write about the "time famine," enough so that Scribner's' 1886 complaint still seems fair. Adding to the media overkill, the major networks produce dozens of television specials, detailing how Americans are "running out of time," pressed to the wall by the excessive time demands of their jobs.

The Family Institute of American continues to do what Goldmark and Brandise did ninety years ago, documenting the damage done to the family, and concluding with Goldmark that the "fundamental harm caused by overwork is to the American family."

Like Annie Payson Call, journalists still cover the story in depth, coming up with some striking images. For instance, Amy Saltzman uses the "empty front porch" as a metaphor to represents the loss of family and community time to work. Witold Rybczynski sounded another nostalgic note, wondering what ever happened to the weekend—now people all seem to be waiting for the weekend that never comes.

Things appear to have gotten even worse since the early twentieth century; at least then people seemed to have had time for front porches and weekends. Up-to-date twists have been added to the story. Reporters describe how new kinds of electronic communication extend the "long arm of the job" so that few places remain safe from work. They imagine more of us living "above the store," on permanent call by cell phone and e-mail, even on "vacations" that are getting shorter because of the press of work.

Just as the state and national labor bureaus did at the turn of the twentieth century, academics are now trying to gauge the extent of the distress, falling to quibbling in the process. Harvard economist Juliet Schor argued in 1992 in her popular book, The Overworked American, that as a result of a combination of factors—the increase in the percentage of the population working (primarily women), increases in the number of hours worked each week, and reductions in paid time off—the average Joe or Jill works about a month more now than in the mid-1970s. Her findings seem to support the series of Harris polls that showed the average American working 20 percent more in the early 1990s than in 1973 (up from 40.6 hours to 48.8 hours) and having 32 percent less free time per week (down from 17.7 hours per week to 8.5). In addition to more women working, Harris explained that increasing numbers of retired people are returning to work (see also Hunnicutt).

The President's Council of Economic Advisors' 1999 report "Families and the Labor Market, 1969–1999: Analyzing the 'Time Crunch'" bolstered these claims, showing that American parents had twenty-two fewer hours per week to spend at home compared with the average in 1969. The President's Council accounted for most of the decrease by the entrance of women into the labor force. Still the council concluded that all who worked for pay were increasing their average hours, and that U.S. workers spent more time on the job than workers in any other developed country.

The most widely used measure, the Department of Labor and Bureau of Census joint publication the March Current Population Survey (CPS), shows only a small increase in working hours from 1970 to 2000, ranging from a low of just over forty-two hours per week to a high near forty-four hours for full-time male workers (adjusted for part-time work, self-employed workers, and multiple job holdings). Women average around thirty-seven hours per week on their paid jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports that the labor force participation rate (the proportion of the civilian noninstitutional population sixteen years of age and older either at work or actively seeking work) increased to an all-time high, from 60.4 percent to 66.4 percent between 1970 and 1990 (Fullerton, pp. 3–12).

However, studies done by John Robinson, Geoffrey Godbey, and Ann Bostrom using time diary data seemed to show that leisure was increasing, that by the mid-1980s working Americans had about five more hours of leisure per week than in the mid-1960s. They explained that when answering survey questions (such as those use by the CPS), most people overestimated how long they worked, and that the difference between the reported and the "actual" workweek increased each year until by the 1980s men were saying they worked ten to eleven more hours each week than they really did; women, about six. The "myth of the overworked American" was widely touted in the media, contradicting earlier stories about overwork (passim).

However, the time diary studies have also been questioned. Jerry Jacobs found that the discrepancy between the survey data and the time diary measures could be no more than a statistical anomaly, the result of random measurement error, and that "independent measures of working time largely corroborate the self-reported measures relied on by the standard surveys, such as the census and the CPS" that show weekly averages to be around 42.6 in 1997 (pp. 42–53). Moreover, the President's Council and Juliet Schor's conclusions about the expanding percentage of the population entering the workforce, expanding the total number of hours worked, are not rebutted by the time diary studies, nor is the fact that working women face a "second shift" when they return home. At this point, it seems prudent to rely on CPS figures, combined with the census data on increasing labor force participation.

Reality vs. Perception

Nevertheless, all observers do agree on a fundamental fact—that the perception of being overworked is widespread. Whether work hours have increased a little or a lot since the 1960s, the feeling of being overwhelmed remains and seems to be ubiquitous. It appears, then, that "Americanitis" has endured as something of a national character trait. Americans' preoccupation with work seems, on the surface, to be one of the few stable features of American life, and that the "work ethic" has endured as a foundation of American values, even to a fault.

But the similarities are more apparent than real. Attitudes and beliefs about work that lay just beneath the surface of the overwork stories were very different at the beginning of the twentieth century, and careful comparison of the two sets of discourses reveal historical changes of the first order of importance.

At the turn of the twentieth century, those who wrote about overwork were generally optimistic—overwork was widely seen as a temporary phenomenon that might be mitigated by enlightened business practices and by feasible social reforms in the short run; but, in all cases, bound vanish before the onrush of history.

Industrial scientists demonstrated that fatigue hindered production, proving to their satisfaction that after eight hours, workers' productivity decreased dramatically. Fatigue was bad business. The eight-hour day swept the nation after 1910. Reformers pressed for new laws, among the most important of the Progressive Era, limiting child labor and overly long hours in hazardous occupations and for children and women. Important parts of the discourse surrounding these events were about protecting the family from the excessive demands of industry, and were predicated on a widespread agreement that overwork was bad for the health of everyone and should be remedied by state regulation.

Moreover such practical reforms were set in the context of a larger optimism and broader vision. For decades before and after the turn of the century, writers defined progress in terms of higher wages and shorter hours—industry's increasing productivity was providing more of the material goods of life, nearing the time when everyone would have enough to live on. But just as important, industrial progress was offering more time to live. Of course, problems such as overwork remained, but the machine promised and was delivering a "golden age" of abundance, humane as well as material.

Fully expecting "necessity's obsolescence," utopian books flooded the market after the 1888 publication of Bellamy's Looking Backward, many employing the traditional utopian themes of the four- or six-hour workday. Bellamy set the tone, imagining a twenty-first-century world blessed by technology that freed humans from work and "necessity" for the best part of their lives. The inhabitants of Bellamy's "perfect society," realizing that "it is not our labor, but the higher and larger activities . . . the intellectual and spiritual enjoyments and pursuits . . . that are . . . the main business of life," retired at fortyfive (chapter 18).

Such a vision permeated the age. But for the practical-minded, increasing liberation from work was not about some distant utopia but was an achievable goal, as realistic as higher wages. For more than a century, organized labor and workers succeeded in reducing their working hours, and they fully expected their victories to continue. By 1887, George Gunton was calling labor's repeated claims that "if twelve hours' labor a day is better than fourteen, then six must be better than twelve, three better than six . . ." stale. However "stale" this project may have appeared at the time to Gunton, in the event, it turned out rather to be the well-worn road map for progress in the labor movement, as working hours were being cut virtually in half over the century of shorter hours. The coming of the age of leisure was hardly utopian speculation (Horowitz).

Economists, aware of the century-long work-reduction phenomena around the turn of the twentieth century, confidently forecast that work's long-term decline would continue—there was no reason to expect its ending. Indeed, this was arguably the longest and most influential social and economic movement in modern times.

American scientists and engineers prided themselves in leading the way, confident that their chief contribution to society was the new range of "labor saving-devices" they were delivering. Perhaps their paramount contribution to human betterment was the lifting of the six-hour day out of the realm of utopian speculation into the everyday calculation of practical-minded business-people.

Prominent individuals and journalists wrote dozens of books and articles predicting that work would soon become a subordinate part of life—that two hours of work per day would be an established norm by the year 2000. This view of progress spread even to conservative businesspeople who put the six-hour day into operation in cities such as Battle Creek, Michigan, and Akron, Ohio, during the 1930s.

Overwork in this context was doubly condemned, not only for damaging family and health, but also for impeding the opening of a fuller, freer life for the masses. Overwork, as working longer than "necessary," could even make the transition from work/necessity to freedom impossible. As work and the marketplace encroached on the realms of human freedom, gradually obscuring them, people might well forget that there was something to life other than economic concerns and perpetual working.

Given the widespread optimism about continuing work's reduction, the one-hundred-year tradition of shorter hours, and the vigorous state regulation of work hours that started the twentieth century, it is strange that Americans are just as concerned with overwork a hundred years later.

It is significant that as the new millennium began, the discussion about overwork was taking place in a very different cultural context. The "scientific" discoveries about fatigue that supported the reduction of the workday at the turn of the century were generally ignored. Little or no attention was given to what was once understood as a scientific "fact"—that concentration and dexterity decline significantly after eight hours of work. In the early 2000s people working in the most fatigue-sensitive kinds of occupations seemed to take pride in working virtually all the time. Physicians, for example, were notorious for advertising their need to work exceptionally long hours, but they were somehow oblivious to the needs of patients to be treated by someone who was not intoxicated by fatigue. Corporate culture put a premium on "face time"; salaried employees were expected to be on the job or on call day and night. Hourly workers came to depend on overtime, at record levels in the 1990s, as the only way to make ends meet. (From 1991 to 1997, average weekly overtime in manufacturing increased by 1.6 hours, reaching its highest level—4.9 hours—since Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing the series in 1956.) John Stuart Mill's fear that workers might continue to be "exploited" by "overwork" seems to have come true (Hetrick pp. 30–33).

Meaningful reform of excessive work hours by state regulation is virtually dead in the United States. The solutions now offered for overwork are generally piecemeal, based largely on the "self-help" approach Annie Payson Call espoused in the 1890s. Instead of new and effective state or federal regulation of work hours, in the place of the hundreds of state and national laws limiting work hours that dominated the political landscape in the first part of the twentieth century, Congress offered "Band-Aid" remedies in the 1990s. During Clinton's second term, for example, Democrats attempted to address the national concerns about overwork by making business more "family friendly," proposing regulations that require bosses to give their employees occasional time off for the needs of the family. Republicans, fearful of such government intrusions, pushed instead for a "comp-time" bill, i.e., amendments to existing legislation that would allow employers to compensate workers for over-time by time and a half off work instead of time and a half pay—for example, if a person puts in ten hours of overtime this week, he or she could take off fifteen hours sometime in the future. Even these timid initiatives failed, dying in congressional committees, leaving the sixty-year-long stretch of governmental inaction unbroken. Many criticized the Republican plan as opening the door to the Right's real agenda, the rollback of all hours regulation. Some feared that the sixty-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act was in jeopardy. The few scholars and activists who advocate effective new hours regulation, such as double-time payment for overtime or an overtime tax, are ignored for the most part, consigned to the backwaters of the political terrain.

A Shift in the Popular Thinking

But the most important historical change has been in beliefs about work. Overwork is no longer seen as a meanwhile problem, bound to disappear as the economy progresses. Very little remains in the public discourse of the once prominent understanding of work as a means to an end. Discussion about work has shifted dramatically, dominated now by an opposing belief, work as an end in itself.

As the new millennium began, few economists remained who expected the satisfaction of "basic" economic needs to be an immediate, or even a distant likelihood. "Obsolete necessity," once understood as one of progress's givens, seemed more the fond hope of yesterday's benighted dreamers.

The expectation of "abundance" so prominent at the turn of the twentieth century—the widespread belief that it was possible to get enough of the material goods of life and then move on to better things as industry advanced—has been replaced by hopes for an eternally expanding economy, ever higher standards of living, and, ironically, the perpetual advance of necessity.

Instead of hope for expanding freedom, need now springs eternal in American hearts. Intellectuals and politicians, with few exceptions, have ceased dreaming of further work reduction, pining instead for a world full of enough work for everyone or brooding about the "work famine" to come. Instead of viewing progress as transcending work, necessity, and economic concerns, Americans in the early 2000s tended to view work as the ultimate measure of progress and definition of prosperity—the more of it the better. Economists and politicians turned from the notion that human needs for industrial products were finite (and that "economic abundance" was a meaningful term) to embrace the rival faith that economic needs were infinite.

Modern presidents evaluated their administrations by how much work expanded during their term—how many new jobs were created. Academics have concluded that "the disappearance of work is not an opportunity but a tragedy" (Wolf).

Work is no longer the road to finite destinations. Instead work is now widely perceived as a need in itself—not the subordinated, perfected work of the two-hour day Julian Huxley expected, or the fifteen-hour week John Maynard Keynes predicted, but the life-centering, "full-time" job of at least forty hours for an expanding portion of the population.

During the twentieth century, for the first time, "full-time" work was defined as a stable norm (at forty hours or better per week), and valued in and for itself. The "need" of an ever larger portion of the population for this "full-time" work is perhaps the only candidate that might satisfy Keynes's definition of an unchangeable economic need today—a turn of events that doubtless would have shocked the economist.

With the rise of the faith in work as an end in itself, the industrial nations have embarked on what may well be the most fantastic project ever conceived in human history, apart from the Tantalus fable—the eternal replacement of existing work, perpetually being taken away by new technology and capitalism, by new work.

Whereas at the turn of the century, the time that was freed by new machines and efficient business techniques promised the opening up of human life in realms outside work and the market, signaling the advent of a "golden age," in the early 2000s that same process had been largely redefined—economists and politicians hoped that the newly freed time could continually be reemployed by the market or state, transformed into the new work necessary to undergird everlasting economic growth and "full employment."

Whereas American scientists and engineers once rallied round the slogan "labor-saving device," they have turned to proclaiming long and loud the exact opposite, "science makes jobs," defending new technologies such as the computer and the Internet because they will expand "employment opportunities."

Compared to this chimera of work's perpetual regeneration, the utopians' old dreams about "abundance" and necessity's obsolescence seem rather unimaginative. The modern project is made even more wonderful because of the new, widely accepted faith that somehow this newly minted work will become more and more intrinsically satisfying. A new faith in "good jobs" (what Jacques Ellul called "l'idéologie du Travail-Bien") has evolved and largely obscured the old belief that expanding free time was the way to compensate workers for "devitalized" work (pp. 43–48).

Certainly criticism of "deskilled" and dehumanized work has endured—if anything, like concerns about overwork, it has grown stronger since the 1890s. Technology and capitalism continued to produce machine-dominated, highly regulated, specialized, servantlike, and boring jobs. But as the twentieth century unfolded, another solution gained ascendancy—the fond hope that work might be transformed and made the place for community, craftsmanship, personal fulfillment, and cultural expression—the very things that defenders of "progressively shorter hours" once claimed would be fruits of increasing leisure."

Whereas "most critics" of work's degradation at the turn of the century concluded that "if modern industrial work was soulless, then men should do less of it" (Rodgers, p. 90) the dominant myth in the early 2000s was that work would eventually be reengineered and reformed to become the human abode—wonderfully transformed as the place to realize one's full humanity. The fact that few jobs lived up to such expectations is widely rejected as an argument against "l'idéologie du Travail-Bien." Alan Wolf represents the dominant view: "The fact that there remain so many jobs that have little self-direction or that fail to contribute to people's moral development is not an argument to reduce our dependence on work, but to encourage precisely those kinds of work that contribute to "'cognitive complexity,' personal competence, and liberal democratic values." (One is reminded of the biblical Job by such a passage, so rich with faith and patient expectation, and of Job's cry to Yahweh, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him").

As the project of work's eternal regeneration and the myth of "good jobs" gained ground, free time and free realms outside work and the marketplace were increasingly commodified, commercialized, trivialized, and subdued as the handmaidens of work. Instead of providing new opportunities to strengthen families, communities, and the state, instead of opening up democratic vistas in the nonpecuniary, "free realms of life" to the masses, industrial progress has done the very opposite. As the new work beliefs waxed strong, significant inroads were made by work and the marketplace into those domains of life once understood to transcend economic logic and to be "free" and worthwhile for their own sakes.

As "free time" has been steadily commercialized, it has been transformed from a time for the expression of community-based, culture-producing activities, to passive consumption. Instead of employing time outside work and the market in active engagement with others—conversing, storytelling, making music, performing rituals, and simply playing—citizens of the modern age spend the majority of their leisure passively consuming "culture" that is ready-made for them. The fears that Mill, Patten, and others expressed 100 years ago, that unlimited economic expansion and continued overwork would obscure and then foreclose the realms of human experience outside the utilitarian, now seem prophetic.

Little now remains of the expectation that work's subordination would open up human existence outside of necessity and the marketplace. As what Jürgen Habermas termed the "colonizing of the Lifeworld" has proceeded apace, the time freed by industrialization has been largely trivialized. Few remain who defend steadily increasingly leisure as the hope for the future—as the harbinger of a "golden age." Few now claim that leisure, rather than work, is the place for realization of human potential. Abundant leisure has become for most a freedom too far; a time "lost from work," fit only for the foolish and lazy who are content to waste their lives in pointless idleness (vol. 1, pp. 183, 239–240; vol. 2, pp. 292–293, 422, 452, 470–487).

One of Habermas's main points is that "communities of discourse" have collapsed, replaced in the modern age by a superculture that is passively consumed by most and produced and performed by an increasingly small elite. Writing about the transformation of "a public that made culture an object of critical debate into one that consumes it," he concluded: "no longer cultivation [Bildung] but rather consumption opens access to culture goods." Instead of publicly doing and performing, transmitting and transforming their culture, citizens of industrial societies have become passive, private consumers of that which was once the place for the discovery of common humanity and life-meaning for individuals. "Citizens" who once, contending with each other in public about the "good and just life," helped create a public world of symbols and symbolic interchange have now given up and adopted a "general attitude of demand." The "commodification and commercialization of culture" systematically displaces "critical-rational discourse" as agencies and structures "outside the community" coopt fundamental cultural roles.

From progress's brightest promise, leisure has descended to hobbies, TV, and "pass-times"—or to the marginal existence of outcasts who are unable or unwilling to center their existence in the truly meaningful experience of "full-time" work. Leisure is now defended, if at all, as a way to improve work, or better still provide new avenues for work's expansion.

The 100-year process of work's reduction and the vision of progress beyond the realms of work and necessity that was shared by so many earlier in the twentieth century across the political spectrum, including conservative businesspeople and political moderates such as Elihu Root, are now most often dismissed as an anomaly—as the "radical traditions of reducing [work] hours" (Wolf).

Finally, the 100-year work-reduction process, the "century of shorter hours," ended during the 1940s, followed by more than a half century of stable (or perhaps increasing) work hours up to the present. Workers' and labor's old cause, the "progressive shortening of the hours of labor," now radicalized, has virtually disappeared. The shorter hours trajectory, once seen to be an irresistible historical movement, provided a vocabulary for the work-as-a-means-to-an-end discussion. With the end of shorter hours and with the expansion of work to include larger portions of modern life, the old expectations about "progressively shorter hours" now seem incredible, no longer serving as an historical platform for projecting an alternative to what Joseph Pieper called the "rise of the world of total work" (p. 12).

See also: Expansion of Leisure Time, Work and Leisure Ethics, Working-Class Leisure Lifestyles


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Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt