Several years ago, I went to a folk festival in Philadelphia. Many of the performers sang labor songs of the 1930s, civil rights songs of the 1960s, peace songs of many decades. The audience sang along, nostalgia strong in the air. Then Charlie King began singing a song with the refrain, "What ever happened to the eight-hour day? When did they take it away?… When did we give it away?" And the audience roared. This was our lives, not something from the past.
Suddenly I saw that my sense of overwork, of teetering on the edge of burnout, was not mine alone. Something was in the air. I began to talk with others, especially with people whose religious and spiritual traditions call for some time to reflect, to be calm, to refrain from Doing and Making in order to Be and to Love. Out of those discussions has come an effort that brings Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Unitarians and secular intellectuals together to redress the rhythms of work and family time, community time, spiritual time. Free time and you free people. Free time not just through the ancient practice of the Sabbath but also through new ways, appropriate to an industrial/informational economy, of pausing from overwork and overstress.
Juliet Schor of Harvard wrote a book, The Overworked American, in which she showed that the promise made to us thirty years ago–that the new computer technology would give us more leisure time–has been betrayed. Most Americans work longer hours, under more tension, than they did a generation ago.
Other studies followed. Some of them pointed out the increase in temporary and part-time workers. But it has become clear that "underwork" and "overwork" are in fact closely related. Corporations that seek to keep workers "part time" and "temporary" so as to pay them less and avoid providing medical or pension benefits drive workers into finding extra jobs, just to keep hanging on by their fingertips to a barely adequate income. Underwork breeds overwork.
Some blue-collar workers are shanghaied into compulsory overtime, working as much as a seventy-hour week. Their bosses would rather pay them extra than add new workers with medical benefits and Social Security. They lose touch with their kids–but they can't say no. In many cases downsizing leaves fewer workers to carry out the same amount of work–and the remaining jobholders work longer under pressure to get the job done. Fear that they will be the next workers downsized helps spur them into overwork. And conversely, the overwork of some–twelve-hour days, sixty-hour weeks–reduces the number and quality of jobs that are available to others. Overwork breeds disemployment.
It is not just poor people or blue-collar wage earners who get forced into overwork. The overwork/overstress reality runs across class lines. From wealthy brain surgeons to single mothers making minimum wages at fast-food restaurants, tens of millions of Americans are overworked.
But if people choose to do it, who is to say it is "overwork"? Anyone who really feels burned out can just slow down, no? Any malaise that people feel is just a result of their own choices, no? No. Treating overwork as a private life-choice, and a sense of burnout as a result of internal confusion and incompetence, is like saying that women who felt discomforted and disempowered in the 1950s had chosen their lifestyle. For many of those women it took Betty Friedan to put a name to their unease and to show them that a systemic and political structure was oppressing them–and that they could do something about it.