Kathi Weeks: We Work Too Damn Hard!

Are you feeling guilty? On vacation? Or are you feeling guilty that you did not take a vacation this year? This week on GRITtv, author/Duke professor Kathi Weeks takes a look at the politics of work and the American work ethic: What makes us willing to concede to demands that workers do more and more work? And what would happen if we stopped?

Also see: Laura Flanders: Americans Are Working Too Damn Hard

Part of it is easy to explain: jobs are scarce and unemployment high. Americans are supposed to feel grateful to have a job. A vacation too? Most of us are so busy tightening our belts and “leaning in” that we skip “perks” like sick days or vacation time. We march for jobs (as many of us will, August 24th, on the 50th Anniversary March on Washington) but it’s hard to find where to line up for the march for more leisure, or more time “off.” The last time US labor movements marched for more time off, it was for the eight-hour day, after the depression of 1884.

“This was a huge part of the labor movement and a really important focus and then it fell off the map and we really haven’t had any reductions in work hours since around World War II”, Weeks tells GRITtv in this expansive interview.

Women who juggle “work-family” balance have been popular media fare this summer. But who’s talking about the work-leisure balance? (Especially, as Sarah Jaffe points out, leisure for women and moms.)

“Demands for more time off are generative not just of needed reforms that would help people live their lives, but of critical perspectives and political imagination” says Weeks. She is the author of The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.

It’s been twenty years since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the FMLA still left US workers way behind workers in most other wealthy countries. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Americans work 45.9 weeks in a year – 4.8 weeks more than most of our industrial world counterparts and no mandatory paid vacation time.

Globalization and computerization have massively shrunk the demand for US labor. The American labor force is the smallest it’s been in 20 years and there’s no reason to believe the needle’s about to redirect. Job sharing and shorter work-weeks make economic as well as social sense.

Meanwhile even by raising the topic Weeks hopes that we begin to think more critically and imaginatively about, “the possibilities about a life that’s not so relentlessly subordinated to work.” If we weren’t working so hard, what would we do? If weren’t willing to work ever harder, what would we demand, then?

Kathi Weeks is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at Duke University. She talked with GRITtv this July in New York City.