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America Has Forgotten That We Don’t Have Freedom if We Don’t Have Free Time

The debate over Obamacare and voluntary work reduction raises intriguing questions.

via Shutterstock)" width="400" height="267" />(Photo via Shutterstock)

What exactly is human progress? If progress is the growth of opportunities, then we should welcome developments that give us more options in how we spend our time and structure our lives. But when we get trapped in the mindset of eternal scarcity and laboring until our last breath, we stop imagining that there could be any path in front of us except more and more work.

A recent report on Obamacare by the CBO found that the law will nudge workers to work less. Why? Because if you don’t have to take a full-time job just to get coverage, then maybe you won’t. Conservatives are interpreting the report to mean that Obamacare is a “job killer.” But they’re deliberately missing the fact that the work reduction in this case is voluntary.

“The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply,” says the report.

Assuming the CBO is correct about this voluntary reduction, what’s so bad about it? Why would anyone be up in arms about the idea of a person choosing, of her own free will, to work less?

If you’re a 60-year-old retail worker with diabetes, you’ve had to work a full-time job in order to get health insurance coverage. Under Obamacare, your pre-existing condition won’t prevent you from getting insured, so you may choose to cut back your hours or retire early. Facing job insecurity and layoffs, older workers have often been forced to taking McJobs just to be able to go to the doctor, when they could be doing much more interesting and productive things with their time, like teaching their grandchildren to read or engaging in civic activities.

Our health insurance system has locked many people into full-time jobs that aren’t necessarily the best use of their human potential. Entrepreneurs have put off trying out new business ideas because they fear losing insurance. Parents of newborns and people taking care of elderly parents can’t take time to care for their family because insurance is tied to full-time employment.

Democrats argue that getting away from job-lock is a good thing and that the economy could actually get a boost if people have the freedom to get out of jobs they really don’t want. That’s probably true, though a single-payer system that makes healthcare a public good rather than a private cost would be a much better solution to job-lock than Obamacare.

The debate about voluntary work reduction points to some deeper philosophical questions about the nature of work and what kind of society we want to live in. To explore these, we need to get beyond the political spin of both parties.

Maybe the real question is, why don’t we have more choices about how and when we work, and what kind of system would provide them?

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that by 2030, advanced societies would grow rich enough that leisure time would characterize national lifestyles rather than work. That hasn’t worked out so well: Americans have, in fact, had no increase in leisure time since the Great Depression.

In her 1991 book The Overworked American, economist Juliet Schor found that Americans were working a month longer per year in 1991 than they had in the mid-1970s. Her updated research shows that today, we work five whole weeks longer than we did in 1973. Historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, author of Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, points out that at this rate, the 60-hour workweek could become the norm in a few years.

We feel infinite pressure to work more and more in order to achieve the American Dream. From our politicians, especially from the Republican side, all we seem to hear is, “Raise the retirement age!” “Get a second job if you can’t make ends meet!” “Keep working if you’re sick!” Keep going, lazy! Work, work, work!

U.S. workers now toil longer hours than their counterparts in any industrial nation except South Korea. As economist Sendhil Mullainathan recently observed in the New York Times, we have gotten so sleep-deprived our cognitive performance on the job is suffering and we’re actually becoming less productive, which negatively impacts GDP.

Once upon a time, the American Dream wasn’t about working ceaselessly in order to have a house with a two-car garage. We used to talk about how we could structure our society in a way that would free us from having to work constantly — that was once the very essence of the notion of liberty.

The old Protestant work ethic was not about working in order to pile up possessions. Hard work was valued, not for its own sake but because it was supposed to free us from material wants so we could pursue higher cultural and spiritual aims. John Adams said that he would know we had achieved a secure state if his grandchildren were free to study poetry. Jefferson agreed. The Declaration of Independence promised us the “pursuit of happiness.” Not everyone would be wealthy, but even the rich would have the duty to help ensure that everyone had an opportunity to study music or painting or whatever lines of education and enrichment they chose. The liberty of free time, the thinking went, made us better citizens — more tolerant and engaged.

Nineteenth-century industrial capitalists did not agree. In his book, Hunnicutt discusses the ways in which workers have fought to retain the vision of the founders and resist being forced into lives of unrelenting work. The labor movement fought hard for the modern, eight-hour a day, 40-hour workweek to end the strain of the 70- or even 80-hour workweek of the 19th-century Industrial Age.

Shor’s research reveals that the crazy work schedules of the 19th century were actually an aberration in the history of human labor. When workers demanded an eight-hour day, they were trying to restore what their ancestors had before industrial capitalists and the electric lightbulb changed everything — a life of far more leisure time. Today, we’ve slipped back into the 19th-century model, and the 40-hour workweek is a thing of the past for most Americans.

Many economists believe our obsession with endless work is not helping the bottom line. Study after study shows that overworking hurts productivity. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has found that the Greeks, who face a very bad economy, work more hours than any other Europeans. Germans, however, rank second to last in number of hours worked, and their country is considered an economic triumph.

The cult of endless work is not only potentially damaging to the economy, but detrimental to the things that make live worth living, like forging strong bonds with our families and neighbors, improving our communities, pursuing our artistic inclinations and examining the big questions of the universe.

So when we hear about a policy that may give workers the option to work less if they choose, we should be celebrating. That’s what Thomas Jefferson would have done.

The great country singer Merle Haggard has his own way of expressing the desire to reclaim the American Dream.

I’m tired of this dirty old city.
Entirely too much work and never enough play.
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks.
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.

His song, “Big City,” did not become an anthem for nothing. Haggard was calling up the old American desire for true liberty. Freedom from constant work, and a chance to do something unexpected: whatever you feel like doin’.