Posted by: Nathan | August 10, 2007

Working Nation

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” Genesis 2:2-3.
“What is this life, if full of care, / We have no time to stop at stare?” W.H. Davies.

I hear it every day in my conversations at the bank. When I ask what customers are doing this weekend, at least 30% tell me they’re working. “Oh, so you get a day off some other time during the week?” No, they don’t. Work, 24/7/365. They have kids. They have loved ones. They have to pay the bills, so they work. All the time.

The United States is working itself to death. Sure, the death is coming very, very slowly, but sometimes that’s the most painful way to die. We don’t have time to do anything aside from clocking in, clocking out, eating and sleeping. This means we don’t rest, see friends, travel, enjoy hobbies, catch a movie, play with our kids, take our dogs for walks, read, talk (really talk), clean, et al. Work, eat, sleep. That’s what we do.

Of course, I’m overstating the case, but is it that much of an exaggeration? So many people I talk to tell me (in Spanish or English) that they work far too much. Usually, they don’t say it outright; they smile and give me stoic clichés like, “No work, no food, right?” or “Hey, we all got to pay the bills.” And we do have to eat and pay bills, but how many hours of our lives are we going to fritter away to do those things?

America is built on work. The Europeans who came here had to clear the land, set up towns and farms, and make a life. Then the immigrants came from everywhere and willingly worked to improve their family situation. It’s the American Dream: I can work my way to a better life for my children and their children.

It’s still that way, but I’m alarmed at the price we’re paying “improve” our lives. The cost of living is growing all the time; businesses aren’t in any hurry to raise wages. And of course there are those who work for themselves and give every second of their existence to ensure that their business endeavor will earn money. We’re always just one paycheck, one week, one deal, one investment, one job away from financial security and happiness. Right?

The side effects of all of our work are everywhere: the obesity epidemic (who has time to cook or exercise?), lack of understanding of other traditions (who can travel?), limited scope (who has time for a book?), health problems and an increasingly expensive health care system (who has time to care of squiself?), and children who grow up orphans in the home where Mom and Dad live. The real stuff of life, the people and things that really matter to us, are always on hold so we can pull a double shift or grab some extra overtime.

Where does it stop? How do we get out of the work and money downward spiral? There are lots of options, many of them I’ll draw from other cultures who seem to be more relaxed than we. We need to begin by cutting hours, period. Make a 35-hour work week. I believe some European countries are doing this, and last I heard, the Euro isn’t doing so bad. Institute a siesta. Shut down the day for two hours and send everybody home; close all the businesses and force people to see their families and rest. Make a three-day weekend standard. There is too much to be done in a two-day weekend; we need three days. Increase pay (this should happen regardless). I’m not suggesting we adopt all of the above measures, but one or two of them would make a significant difference.

Of course, at the heart of this pandemic are two of our favorite values: money and convenience. Those who have plenty of money (they’re the idiots parading around on MTV and Lifestyles of the Rich and Pathetic) want more. And more! So screw the workers, let’s get another house! And we all want things to be convenient, don’t we? I want my food now! NOW! I don’t care what’s in it. Give me faster, cheaper products. I want to get there now! I want this NOW!

If we can change or at least downplay one or both of these values, we might get somewhere without government intervention (which almost always causes problems). More money? Nah. Let’s make sure our workers are taken care of. Let them off early today. Give them extra days off for holidays. They need better benefits, and we can afford it. Maybe I’ll stay home with the kids today. Convenience? I’ll make my own dinner, thank you. I don’t really need all that stuff. Leather seats and a new flatscreen TV don’t make for a better life. Why not take it slow?

I hope I’m being clear. The blame for our working too much goes to thousands of sources in varying degrees. But we can change our lives, either with our daily choices or via government. And since some are so in need that they cannot change their lives very much, let’s help them out.

I love America. It’s an amazing place, but it’s slowly losing its hope and its heart at the hands of money and too much work. We can change that.

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Responses

  1. Good post!

    Since we moved to DC, M and I have instituted ‘do what you want’ Sundays, admittedly to varying success. When they do happen, such Sundays are a wonderful break–a true Sabbath.

    Unfortunately, the challenge of finding time to relax and/or cut back on work when one is both working and going to school. Those two/three nights a week (in my case), plus the homework one has to do, can really be a burden sometimes. Alas, it is part of the endeavor.

  2. I completely agree! The solutions you suggest will probably never fly in America, though, unless EVERY major corporation decides to change their minds. Americans make fun of the French’s 35 hour work week and the use of free time in other nations because of the nation’s idealds/the pride factor, I guess…Our economy is better! We’re bigger! Which are both true…but you’re right, what are we giving up?

    Truly, visiting other countries and how they conduct life has made me question whether I will end up living in the U.S. my entire life. Quality of life is the main issue that many Americans don’t get. Good post..plus, do you like how I’ve commented on all 3 of these last posts? I think I deserve a gold star.

  3. I don’t really have the problems you’ve described (except not making all of my own meals, but I disagree that it’s the problem you’ve made it to be*). If I work late or on a weekend, I leave early or take extra days off the next week (this is more a perk of my job as many people can’t comp their over-40-a-week sacrifices). I take an hour lunch break every day so I can go home (under 10 minute drive) and spend some time with my daughter in the middle of the day. My company also gives employees plenty of vacation and personal days. I may work for a soulless, money grubbing corporation, but for some odd reason they are trying to take care of me.

    Most of this trend in America of working too much is simply a lot of personal choices. Few people need to work that much (I mean it; buy a smaller house, an older car, Wal-Mart clothes…there are cheaper lifestyles). So we DEFINITELY DO NOT need government intervention. If John Q. wants to work 70 hours a week, let him. If your job makes you work too much and you don’t like it, get a different job.

    I see people who work too much, and I see people who don’t work enough. I also still see lots of people who never place work before their families. Is a larger percentage of people working more and “living” less? You bet. But I don’t smell the death of America’s “hope and heart” just yet, and I certainly couldn’t imagine any remotely good reason to get the government involved in making sure we all slow down. You make a lot of good points about the personal choices we all make, but I think they need to remain personal choices. Let those people work too hard while the rest of us keep our priorities straight.

    *[My wife and I have plenty of time to cook, we’d just rather turn to simpler meal-plans and have even more free time (plus there are plenty of healthy pre-made dinners…you’re not forced to chose between make-it-from-scratch and McDonalds).]

  4. Here you go, little brother. Nice work.

    I really don’t think government intervention is much of a solution, Jason. I sure do like it when you get your dander up! Your point that much of the problem is due to the choices people make is well-received. There is a lot we’re choosing to miss out on.

    But I think you’re more of an individualist than I. All of our individual choices do have effects on a grander scale. Keeping our choices individual is not accurate (everything affects everything else) and it will not change culture.

    About changing jobs: first, not everyone can change jobs because not everyone is qualified to get jobs that can really positively alter their lives; they haven’t had the education, the opportunity, or the money to make it happen. Second, I’m not sure there are that many better jobs to be had. As companies realize how much they can exploit their workers and pay and benefits suffer, every job begins to look like others. Businesses will push their workers as hard as they can.

    Of course, a lot of my statements in the post and this comment are hyperbole used to make points. I’m very pleased that your job is working so well for you and yours; I wish more jobs were like yours, but they’re not. I’d say the vast majority do not come close to taking care of their employees as much as yours does, but everybody needs money.

    Last, the comments about meals were (again) over-statements. There is a huge range of meal choices between fast food and made-from-scratch. I wanted to say that in many cases, quality implies time and patience, and I think that is especially true of food. None of us eat gourmet food three times daily. But there are compromises we make, and often these have unwanted consequences.

    Really, it comes down to values. What do we value as a culture and what do we want to value?

  5. Yikes…I didn’t mean to come across as one who’s dander had been raised, although I’m glad you enjoyed it. Sorry to come around and disagree so often. I do enjoy reading. Oh, and the gold star was a nice touch.

  6. And I meant to say “whose dander”. I need to install some kind of grammar checker for Firefox now too I guess. 😉

  7. Your comments, regardless of agreement or disagreement, are always welcome here. I hope my comment above merely clarified my thoughts and didn’t sound harsh. I tend to get carried away.


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