In the '60s, social scientists were predicting that the U.S. would face the major social problem of too much leisure time by the year 2000. The Senate was predicting a 14-hour work week by then, with seven to ten weeks of vacation a year.
We got the technology— and a near doubling of hourly worker productivity. But employers, not workers, have gotten the benefits. All the leisure we might have has been pick-pocketed by the “invisible hand” of the free market and the sleight-of-hand of “trickle-down” (or more aptly, “gush up”) economics.
Today, Americans are actually working longer hours than they were in 1970; working nine weeks more than western Europeans and even more than the famously workaholic Japanese.
The result is a multi-faceted disaster. Overwork and time-stress have left Americans little time for good nutrition or exercise, putting us at risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments. Millions suffer from sleep deprivation.
Lack of time for social bonding also weakens our mental, civic, and political health. American politicians make constant appeals to “family values,” but ignore the fact that the percentage of American families who regularly eat dinner together or take vacations together has declined by one-third.
Robert Putnam (“Bowling Alone”) largely blames TV for the time loss, but forgets that TV viewing is highest in countries with the longest work hours—the U.S. and Japan—and lowest in countries such as the Netherlands, which has much shorter work hours.
TV is the perfect passive “activity” for weary workers. Political participation requires, above all, time—and the mental energy—to understand the issues; one cannot take informed action without time to study the issues.
For more than a century, working people around the world understood that leisure time was as important to life as material goods. Juliet Stuart Poyntz, education director of the Ladies International Garment Workers Union, declared that what employees wanted most of all was “time to be human.”
“Workers,” she observed, “have declared that their lives are not to be bartered at any price.” “No wage, no matter how high,” she continued, was more important than the time that workers needed to be full human beings. But what would not be bartered, could, unfortunately, be stolen.
This short edit by Fintan Dunne
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