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Life time

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What if Americans worked less?

Dreyfus Corporation, New York City, 1992. By Lee FriedlanderOne of the most striking features of American society is how much we work. Unlike the century between 1850 and 1950, when productivity improvements translated into considerable reductions in hours of work, the last three decades have witnessed steady increases in work time.

From 1973 to 2000, the average American worker added 199 hours to his or her annual schedule—nearly five additional weeks of work per year (assuming a 40-hour workweek). Now the world's standout workaholic nation, America leads other industrial countries in terms of the proportion of the population holding jobs, the number of days spent on those jobs per year, and the hours worked per day. Through the booms and the busts, average U.S. work hours haven't stopped climbing.

Between 1967 and 2000, the overall index of labor productivity per hour increased about 80 percent, from 65.8 to 116.6. That index represents economic progress, indicating that the average worker in 2000 could produce nearly twice as much as in 1967. Had we used that productivity dividend to reduce hours of work, the average American now could be working only a little more than 20 hours a week.

And what if that had happened? Our material standard of living would have stabilized. Americans would be eating out less, the average house size wouldn't have grown by 50 percent, and kitchen counters might still be made of Formica. We wouldn't be heating up the climate as rapidly, because expensive gas-guzzling SUVs wouldn't have become so popular. And we wouldn't need to replace our computers every two to three years, which might not be such a bad thing from an environmental point of view either. (A recent report suggests that the average computer uses a total quantity of material resources equivalent to the average car, or more.)

Certainly, Americans would be consuming a different mix of goods and services than in 1960. But in the aggregate, taking all productivity growth as leisure time would have led to a stable real level of income.


WITH THE normal workweek as low as 20 hours (plus seven weeks of vacation), two-income households with children could easily do without paid child care. People would have plenty of time for community and volunteer work, perhaps meaning less need for government social spending. It would be easy to pursue a passion, like playing music, or woodworking, or quilting, or fishing.

We could become lifelong learners, or make up our chronic national sleep deficit. All that free time could also go into pleasurable activities that provide additional income or consumption—like gardening, or making crafts for sale, or building furniture, or sewing—activities that steadily fewer people have time for now. Work-related expenses, meanwhile, would decrease, which would make stable salaries more bearable.

Americans could actually get back to eating dinner together, talking, and visiting friends.

From today's vantage point, a time-surplus society may seem utopian, almost unnatural. But that's only because we've been going 24/7 for too many years and have lost sight of other possibilities.

It's not too late to stop and smell the roses. The time has come to take back our time.

Juliet Schor


Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of The Overworked American (1992) and the forthcoming Born to Buy: Marketing and the Transformation of Childhood. Her essay is adapted from Take Back Your Time, copyright © 2003 by John de Graaf, editor, reprinted with permission of the publisher, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

 

Photo: Dreyfus Corporation, New York City, 1992. By Lee Friedlander

 

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