The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

America Is in Love With Work

August 19, 2021

“So, what do you do?”

Maybe you’ve asked someone this question when meeting them for the first time. A friend of a friend, or a stranger on a plane, or your date. It’s a “safe” question to break the ice; after all, everyone has a job, right?

Sure, but why do we let our jobs define us? Why do we love work so much?

Why, when we meet someone for the first time, do we jump straight to How do you generate economic value? Why do people who’ve lost their jobs feel shame, self-hatred, and depression? Why is our “personal fulfillment, social inclusion, and respectability,” as described by Northeastern sociology professor Steven Vallas, so tied up in our employment?

All this while we, as a country, work more hours than most other industrialized nations, glorify work in our laws and norms, and have marginal gains to show for it. Netherlands enjoys 91% of the United States’ per-capita GDP (according to the CIA circa 2019) and yet everyone there receives a statutory minimum of four times hours worked of paid leave (or 20 days for 40-hour workers) and sixteen weeks of paid parental leave.

For reference, the United States has a statutory minimum leave of… What was it exactly? Oh yeah, zero hours. For everyone.

As an aside, per-capita GDP is hardly an ideal proxy for value of work, since the vast majority of value created in America flows to the top couple percent of earners, and therefore the distributions of effort put into the system and value extracted from the system are vastly different. Still, on the whole, we work harder for the value we create than others.

As you likely know, Americans used to work even more than we do today. The five-day work week didn’t gain broad popularity until the late ’20s, and up until then everyone worked at least six days a week. We only got Sundays off because the one thing business leaders considered to be of higher importance than profit was church.

Among the unplanned experiments run by American businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, moving to a four-day work week was one. This piece in The Atlantic follows a couple of American companies that temporarily or permanently adopted a four-day week and what their outcomes were. Spoiler alert: the companies are fine.

A woman I worked with years ago, who was in a director-level role in a large corporation, once quipped “There’s always more work to do.” What these experiments and decades of observations show is what we’ve known all along: work expands to fill all available hours, and not all of those hours are consumed by actual work.

So why do we kill ourselves with stress, endure arduous daily commutes, and feel guilty muting email notifications on vacation? Why do we, as a society, celebrate “busyness” and glorify “the grind?” Why have we built a multi-billion-dollar startup culture obsessed with “hustle,” to the point that millennials became known as “the burnout generation?

How is selling boutique luggage worth being bullied and overworked by privileged entrepreneurs? Why should an extra few bucks be worth driving for Lyft while literally in labor?

What is any of this doing for us individually or collectively?

Maybe what we need is to embrace the old adage, work smarter, not harder. Prioritize ruthlessly, invest in adding leverage instead of adding toil, and stop shaming each other for taking care of ourselves, because if our bodies fall apart from disuse and stress, what good can come of that?