The Culture of Overwork: A Distinctly American Tradition

In his 1930 essay "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," economist John Maynard Keynes, predicted an increase in economic productivity that would multiply living standards by 4 to 8 times, resulting in a 15-hour work week by the 21st century – the equivalent of a 5-day weekend!

These predictions have not translated into reality. Certainly, Americans work far less than they used to, and the average number of hours worked per year has declined by 200 hours. However, relative to residents of similarly affluent countries, Americans " longer hours, take shorter vacations, receive fewer social benefits, and retire later," writes Samuel P. Huntington in his book Who Are We? Challenges to America's National Identity.

The American Dream – the myth that hard work always guarantees upward mobility – has been at the heart of American politics, economics, and social relations since the founding of the United States. The worship of work, which Derek Thompson calls "workism," has become prevalent in America.

What is workism? History of workism

Workism is the belief that work is not only necessary for economic production but is also the centerpiece of our identity and the purpose of our lives, so that any policy promoting human well-being must always encourage more work.

The main building blocks of today's work culture are, according to historian Hunnicutt, the result of a succession of events: from 16th-century Protestantism, which viewed effort as a moral value, as a path to a better afterlife, to 19th-century industrial capitalism, which required disciplined workers and driven entrepreneurs, to the 20th-century desire for consumer goods and personal fulfillment.

Work’s centrality to our belief systems

We keep reminding teens that their work should be their passion, and if they don't have a passion, they should keep looking until they find one. This is the typical message of commencement speeches. "We've created this idea that the meaning of life should be found in work," says Oren Cass, author of The Once and Future Worker. According to a 2014 Pew Research report on young people's concerns, finding meaning and purpose in work trumps family values and kindness as the top ambition.

The millennial generation came of age in the 1990s, when workism was at its peak. They were raised to be “self-optimizing machines” and experienced a childhood of extracurricular overachievement in pursuit of success. The pressure to succeed was reinforced by social media, which encouraged the celebration of overwork and burnout (outwardly celebrated even if suspected to be inwardly regretted). However, the myth of overwork survives "because it justifies the extreme wealth created for a small group of elite techies," Griffith says.

In most developed countries, citizens are guaranteed access to health care by their government; however, most insured Americans get health care – where else? –  at their workplace. Moreover, over the past 30 years, America’s welfare system has become increasingly work-based. In 1996, President Clinton pursued the neo-liberal model of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and passed legislation that made welfare benefits contingent on the recipient's employment.

Humankind is wired to work – “the paradox of work”

In 1989, psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre conducted a famous study of Chicago workers, confirming how unhealthy our work culture has become. When questioned, workers often wished they were anywhere but at work, but these same workers reported feeling better and less anxious at the office or factory than anywhere else. This is what the two psychologists called "the paradox of work": many people are happier complaining about their work than they are spending a lot of time on leisure.

Clearly, most people in the prime of life who can work want to work to feel useful and valued; they are unhappy when they cannot. The harms of unemployment go well beyond loss of income; the unemployed are more likely to suffer mental and physical distress.

More profoundly, Americans have given up on a long-held ambition: finding a work-life balance. Many of us don't have time to relax, raise our children, connect with loved ones, help elderly parents, and generally lead a more balanced life. More work means more stress and a lower quality of life. Stress is the number one cause of health problems - mental and physical. According to research by Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, most workers are happier when they spend more hours with their spouses, family, and friends.

The solution? Make work less central

This effort could begin with public policy proposals as the basis for a serious debate about work-life balance in the United States. There is renewed enthusiasm for universal policies — such as universal basic income, parental leave, subsidized childcare, and family allowances — that would reduce long working hours for all Americans.

As productivity increases, countries have the option of improving workers’ well-being not necessarily through higher incomes, but rather through a better work-life balance. And in general, most countries have opted for a mix of both. If instead we want to continue to work more hours for higher pay, it is by choice, not because we have not considered practical solutions to improve our well-being through greater work-life balance.

Final thoughts

The thinking that inspired economist John Maynard Keynes to predict in 1930 that Americans would eventually have 5-day weekends, rather than 5-day weeks, rests on the belief that work is not the product of life, but its currency. What we choose to buy with that currency is the real purpose of life.

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