THE NEW GREEN: More leisure time for a better society
This semester is my last at UConn. I am very fortunate in that I fulfilled all of my graduation requirements in previous semesters, so I had the complete freedom to choose courses that truly inspire and interest me..... and yes, to lighten my course-load substantially. What is the effect of having so much free time? Surely debauchery of all kinds - drinking, oversleeping, T.V. - watching, partying too hard?
Not at all. Instead, my increased leisure has resulted in perhaps the most wholesome turn-around of my life. For the first time, my schedule allows for me to attend to all of my physical needs - to work out, to sleep, to meditate every day - with the result that I feel "centered" on a regular basis. I am kinder to strangers and more appreciative of nature. I have the time to be a good listener and to lead an active civic life - attending lectures, plays and town hall meetings, and visiting cultural institutions such as the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The point is, increased leisure time has not resulted in laziness or reckless hedonism. If anything, it has made me a better student, citizen, daughter, friend and leader - and I do not think that I am a special case. I believe that if given the same opportunity, almost everyone would pursue similarly healthy and productive behaviors. This is the "good life" that philosophers and economists have mused over since the time of Socrates and with the advent of globalization and modern technology, it is an idea that now merits serious consideration on a practical level.
Americans are working too hard. Working in order to earn money makes sense and can be fulfilling, but America has far surpassed the healthy and appropriate work-life balance. This is evident in the rising mental illness that has corresponded with the rise in working hours. In 2000 the Economic Policy Institute found that "absenteeism due to job stress has tripled in the past five years" and a very telling study by the American Psychosomatic Society "found that men age 35 to 57 who took annual vacations were 21 percent less likely to die young than non-vacationers and 32 percent less likely to die of coronary heart disease."
Overworking is also inefficient; it ensures that the time we spend in the office is not productive and the time we spend outside of it is not enjoyable. A 2011 paper published by the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) examined part-time work productivity and concluded: "We find that firms with a large share of part-time employees are more productive than firms with a large share of full-time employees....A larger part-time employment share leads to greater firm productivity." European nations have already proved that more leisure time is good for business. An article in BusinessWeek magazine states: "According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, Belgium and the Netherlands, which mandate 30 and 28 annual vacation days, respectively, are almost 2 percent more productive than the U.S. And Luxembourg, with its highly competitive financial services industry and 32-day yearly vacation allowance, is a staggering 27 percent more efficient."
It is hard, for whatever reason, for Americans to believe that shortening the work week would truly be a more productive and efficient strategy - with benefits for business, health, environment and the civic functioning of society. We harbor a deeply ingrained fear of being lazy and an implacable competitiveness to prove our self-worth through the hours that we put in. For these reasons, if the United States is ever going to achieve a sane work-life balance, it is going to have to implement it gradually over a long period of time. This is precisely what the New Economics Foundation, a UK-based think tank, advocates in their 2013 book "Time On Our Side." Anna Coote, head of the Foundation's Social Institute, explains the strategy:
... young people entering the labour market for the first time could be offered a four-day week (or its equivalent). That way, each successive cohort adds to the numbers working a shorter week, but no one has to cut their hours. Before long, there would be a critical mass of workers on shorter hours and others may want to do the same.
At the other end, elderly people would more gradually enter into retirement. One criticism of this policy is that, at least temporarily, there will be some low-paid workers who simply do not make enough on shorter hours. Coote responds: "The answer is to tackle low pay directly, not to force people to work long hours to feed and house their families. Moving to shorter working hours can help to manage a sustainable, low-growth economy by sharing out paid and unpaid work more evenly across the population." There are countless statistics and studies that demonstrate our deteriorating mental, physical and social health as a direct result of work stress, and that predict increased productivity and savings with a part-time workforce. The real story of the American working lifestyle, however, is not told by statistics. It is our shared, visceral experience of working too hard for the wrong things, and our growing common sense that we are not serving anyone, or anything, when we work past the point of exhaustion. As phrased by writer Joe Robinson in his essay "Do Americans Work Too Much?": "If we have no time for family and friends, no time to enjoy, explore, refresh, and recreate, no time to think that there could be, should be something more, what exactly do we have?"
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